Don't rush to judge Tony Stewart

In a court of law, neither Tony Stewart's past behavior nor his character could be entered into evidence by the prosecution on its own. All that can matter is the one incident in question.

Now, in a viral and chaotic court of public opinion, video and written accounts of his temper and past tantrums are being coupled with his present -- this bewildering, beyond-tragic storm sprung from the dirt of upstate New York.

Network newscasts have shown some of the video of the incident at hand, and right behind come video of Stewart throwing his helmet in 2012. Written accounts bring up his shoving of a photographer at Indianapolis in 2002. I know of more than has been aired. Start digging into Stewart's outbursts past, and you could fill a one-hour documentary.

But none of that can matter now.

Nothing Tony Stewart has ever said, done or thrown can be considered against him now or is any indication whatsoever of any inclination toward anything of this enormity.

Not if you want to be fair about it, anyway.

But fairness seems out the window in this electronic typhoon.

The New York Times has a spot marked on posted video, just at the moment of impact, where you can watch, over and over and over and over, the right-rear tire of Stewart's sprint car striking young Kevin Ward Jr. and sending him tumbling in the dirt to his death.

After watching that -- and our own ESPN raw video -- over and over and over and over, I remain at a loss for a conclusion. It all just happened too fast, too darkly, on a dimly lit track on amateur video of a youth in black uniform and helmet.

Very clear, though, are the moments before impact.

I have seen many a driver get out of his car and walk or run to confront another driver in anger. However, never have I seen a driver unhook his harness and get out as rapidly, unless the car was on fire, as this young man appeared to. My estimate is it took him about 10 seconds.

And never have I seen a driver move so far, so fast, toward the middle of the track -- so near the traffic.

Because Tony Stewart's temper has already been entered into evidence in public perception, surely we can consider Kevin Ward Jr.'s obvious temper at the terrible moment now in question.

The smartest man I know who analyzes racing, my ESPN colleague Ricky Craven, believes this worst of all on-foot incidents, ever, anywhere, should cause an industry-wide ban on a driver getting out of his car before the safety vehicles arrive and the race traffic is under complete control. The only exception would be in urgent situations such as fire.

I concur unequivocally.

A night long ago seems worth mentioning here. In 1975, I saw Bobby Allison compete in a charity race on a dirt track in Jacksonville, Florida. His brand-new Camaro ended up battered and bent all to hell. He finally parked it in midrace out of frustration.

Every local dirt tracker in northern Florida seemed to be gunning for him, if only to brag to a girlfriend or a drinking buddy that he went out and wrecked big-name Bobby Allison.

Allison at the time was running two or three short-track races a week just because he loved it. That same inability to stay away from the grassroots is precisely what has gotten Tony Stewart into trouble -- first a badly broken leg a year ago, and now this.

But how can we blame anyone for loving anything so much? How can we opine that he should stop? How can a man be ordered to fall out of love?

Sheer human decency has launched a public outpouring of thoughts and sympathy for the Ward family. Yet that outpouring is somewhat abstract because outside the state of New York, few of us knew, or even knew of, this young man until he was dead.

That his passion and his talent were obscure until he was gone is a tragedy all its own.

But we know Tony Stewart. I have known him -- up close -- for more than 18 years, and from the very outset I have seen that he wears his heart, his passion, his guts, all over his sleeve.

Although his issued statement said "there aren't words to describe" his sadness, I don't need words to know. I bleed for him. I want to cry for him.

Whatever did or didn't happen during that split second, whatever did or didn't go through his mind, my sense is that "devastated" is woefully inadequate to describe Tony Stewart, here in the cataclysm of his life, sprung from the dirt he is addicted to.