By Lewis Franck
KANNAPOLIS N.C. (Reuters) - NASCAR star Tony Stewart said on Monday he was willing to "be available" to Kevin Ward's family even though he has no need to speak them to achieve "closure" in the dirt-track incident that killed the 20-year-old driver last month.
Normally brash and outspoken, Stewart was subdued during a 30-minute question-and-answer session with journalists at the headquarters of Stewart-Haas Racing in Kannapolis, North Carolina.
It marked the first time he spoke publicly since a grand jury in New York state on Wednesday decided to bring no charges against him stemming from Ward's death on Aug. 9 at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.
Ward died after being struck on the race track by the car driven by the three-time NASCAR champion. Ward's family has been publicly critical of Stewart since the incident.
"I want to be available to them if they want to talk about it," Stewart said of Ward's family. "At this point, I don't need to talk to them for closure. I know what happened, and I know it was an accident, but I'm offering to talk to them to help them, if it helps them with closure."
Stewart said he was relieved not to face charges.
"I would be lying if I said there wasn't a piece of relief, but that was very short-lived. Because as quickly as it was relief in my heart, it went right back to the fact that we lost Kevin. We lost a young driver that had a lot of talent," he added.
Stewart also said he did not know when - or if - he would return to sprint-car racing. "At this point I won't be in one for a while," he said.
The incident occurred on the night before a NASCAR race at Watkins Glen, New York. While most of his peers race only on the NASCAR circuit, Stewart, 43, often races in lower-tier sprint cars. When asked if he would do anything differently the night of the incident, Stewart said: "I would have stayed at Watkins Glen that night."
"I go run those cars to have a good time," he said. "That's all I wanted to do that night. I wanted to go have fun," he said.
Stewart said the incident had changed him. "Before the accident happened, a day would fly by," said Stewart.
"And now, a day seems like two or three days. It feels like the batteries are running low on the clock. I honestly think that every day it will get better, it will get easier. ... I don't know if it will ever be normal again."
The accident occurred after the cars driven by Stewart and Ward bumped, sending Ward's car into the wall. Ward left his car and walked to the center of the track, where Stewart's car hit him. Toxicology reports stated Ward had marijuana in his system at the time.
Stewart said the toxicology report "didn't change anything."
"To me a young driver lost his life," he said. "Didn't matter why or what was going on. The end result was the same. No matter what was said, it was still a tragic accident. I just know in my heart that it was a hundred percent an accident."
(Writing by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)