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Tony Stewart trying to look forward, but it has to be hard

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Tony Stewart said emphatically in January that he would not think about the events of 2014. He would do his best to put them out of his mind and instead try to focus on the present.

The Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen could test his resolve and the emotions of many as Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Kevin Ward Jr., a 20-year-old sprint-car racer who ran on foot toward Stewart's sprint car under caution, was hit by the car and killed at Canandaigua (New York) Motorsports Park.

A grand jury declined to indict Stewart, who has said it was "100 percent an accident." He now faces a wrongful death lawsuit, filed Friday by the Ward family.

Stewart is set to compete in the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen, a track where he has five career Cup wins and is about an hour's drive from where the tragedy happened. He did not race at Watkins Glen last year, and he has tried to avoid the topic as much as possible.

"When we flipped the calendar from 2014 to 2015, I don't think about, talk about or look back," Stewart said in January. "I'm focused on what I'm doing forward and not looking back at all."

Staying focused would seem easier said than done. Yet Stewart qualified a season-best third Saturday for the race at The Glen. The fact he was 14th and 10th in the two practices Friday and then improved in qualifying, showed that he had the focus to look at data and improve despite the turmoil around him. It marked his third consecutive top-5 starting spot and came on the heels of a ninth-place finish at Pocono.

"You just saw him come in on Monday last week into the shop and was so much more upbeat over the way he ran and had qualified the last two weeks," said Stewart-Haas Racing vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli, who is one of Stewart's best friends. "I see him walking around here today. I talked to him this morning. He was happy. That is what we need."

Stewart was upbeat after qualifying as well.

"That was all I had," he said in a statement. "I'm very content with that. ... That is an awesome way to start the weekend for sure. I thought we had a decent day yesterday. Today is even better. Hopefully, we can get our race package a little bit better for tomorrow, too."

While Stewart will try to keep things normal as possible at The Glen, the Empire Super Sprints return to the Canandaigua dirt track Saturday night. There will be a moment of silence in Ward's memory prior to the racing program. No other ceremonies are planned.

"People continue to support us and I'm sure they will forever," Kevin Ward Sr. said on a video posted by NNYRacingConnection on YouTube the night of a memorial race for his son in June. "It just shows what a special person we had. ... The racing family I know was big. I've been around it all my life but what I've seen in the last nine months in the racing family is beyond belief.

"Cards and letters from all over the world, people in the same situation, father and son involved in the racing."

Ward still remains a part-owner in a race car. "It's been in my blood since I've been 5 years old and nothing is changing," he said on the video.

That's racing -- the show goes on in a sport that has forever had its dark, dangerous side. Stewart broke his leg and missed the final 15 races of the 2013 season in a sprint-car accident, and he hasn't had much success since then when driving stock cars.

Last year's tragedy added an emotional strain, and Stewart acknowledges that the events of the past two years would change anybody.

"When they counted down the end of 2014, I was never so happy to see that number go off the calendar. ... I'm ready to put the last two years behind me and never look back," Stewart said in January. "I'm not looking in the mirror, I'm not talking about it, I'm not thinking about it."

While he seemed emotionally drained when he returned to racing three weeks after the tragedy, and throughout the end of 2014, Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick winning the Sprint Cup title gave him something to smile about. In January, Stewart appeared chipper and upbeat after a relaxing winter.

He has said it will be a long time, if ever, before he gets back in a sprint car again.

"I've never questioned who I am or what I do," Stewart said in January. "We've had two rough years back to back, which I don't think I would wish that on anybody. Deep down inside, I know who I am as a person and I know who I am as a driver and that is what I want to get back to."

Stewart continues to seek a return to his driving glory. He is 25th in the Sprint Cup standings. His ninth-place finish Sunday at Pocono Raceway was his best in 13 races and only his second top-10 all season.

"Tony was obviously in a very good mood [Monday]," said Harvick, who leads the 2015 standings. "Tony has been a big part of making us those narrow-minded people that don't pay attention to everything else [and perform].

"Even with everything that has gone on [this year], when he comes in on Monday, he's very focused on the things that he needs to be focused on and trying to dissect what he needs to do, what we need to do to be better."

Stewart has had difficulty remaining enthusiastic as his struggles continued this year. Two SHR drivers -- Harvick and Kurt Busch -- have run well, while Stewart and Danica Patrick have struggled.

"The whole season has been frustrating. It's kind of been a double-edged sword because you've got two of your drivers that are running really well each week and then two of us that aren't where we want to be yet." Tony Stewart

"The whole season has been frustrating," Stewart said Wednesday. "It's kind of been a double-edged sword because you've got two of your drivers that are running really well each week and then two of us that aren't where we want to be yet.

"On one side, it's encouraging because you know that the organization is capable of doing it but the other side of the coin is you're frustrated you can't figure it out yourself."

Zipadelli said he thinks Stewart is starting to figure it out. He said the improvement in qualifying, especially starting third at The Glen, shows how he has adjusted to the lower horsepower in the cars, something that has frustrated him all season.

"It's awesome for this group of guys," Zipadelli said. "It's awesome for him. ... They looked at a lot of the data and he saw where they were off. They made some slight adjustments to the car and he probably made as much or more adjustments in what he was doing.

"These cars are different than in the past. Before, you had that horsepower. It's so much more about momentum, just like it is every other place. The last few weeks, he has really picked that up and really applying that. It is showing in his qualifying. It is showing in his racing."

Looking forward to this weekend, Stewart said he hopes that it rains. This is the first year NASCAR has decided it would run a Sprint Cup road-course race in the rain. It has run other series in the rain on road courses, but never Sprint Cup.

"It definitely is one of my favorite tracks," Stewart said. "We've had really, really good luck there. I'm actually praying for rain on Sunday. I don't know why, but I've had my heart set on racing in the rain at The Glen."

Stewart likely won't get that wish. The National Weather Service forecast calls for just a 10 percent chance of rain.

But he can't get too disappointed if it doesn't rain. The emotional toll of the past couple of seasons -- the guilt he has to feel about missing races in 2013 and then the tragedy in 2014 -- is incomprehensible to most.

And yet it still most likely can't compare with what the Ward family has gone through. The lawsuit filed Friday will only increase tension and anxiety.

"Kevin Ward would be alive today if not for the reckless and dangerous actions of Tony Stewart, who eventually will have to answer for what he did," Ward family attorney Mark Lanier said. "The past year has been extremely difficult for Kevin's mother and father, and they're still trying to cope with their unimaginable loss."