Kenny Irwin Jr.

April 16 in NASCAR: Jeff Gordon surges for 2000 Talladega win

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As the 21st Century dawned on NASCAR, three-time Cup Champion Jeff Gordon was going through something he hadn’t really experienced since his rookie year in 1993. A rough patch.

In 2000, his first full season with a crew chief not named Ray Evernham (he was paired with Robbie Loomis), Gordon and the No. 24 team entered the April 16 DieHard 500 at Talladega seeking to end a 13-race winless streak. Gordon also only had one top-five finish in that stretch, finishing fourth in the race before at Martinsville.

He didn’t get off to the best start in Talladega, qualifying 36th.

But Gordon would lead six times in the 188-lap event for a total of 25 laps. He would take the lead for good with six laps left with a pass of Mark Martin that took Gordon to the apron of the track near the entrance to pit road. It’s a move that would be made illegal at superspeedways in the ensuing years.

Gordon beat Mike Skinner, who earned his career-best finish and last top five, and Dale Earnhardt, who was in the midst of winning three of four Talladega races, including his final Cup win later that year. Rounding out the top five were Kenny Irwin Jr., who earned his final top five before his death less than three months later and Jimmy Spencer.

The victory was Gordon’s 50th on the Cup circuit.

“We qualified horrible, but the second we got out there on the race track the DuPont Chevrolet was really, really good,” Gordon told ABC Sports in Victory Lane. “I told these guys if we can just stay out of trouble and be real patient we’ll work our way to the front. And it took a while. … I learned from the best, Earnhardt. I didn’t want to see him come up through there because he’s the toughest guy there is to race with at these places because he’s so good with the air. Learned a lot of things from him and they paid off today.”

Also on this date:

1964: After an early one-car incident put him a lap down in a race at Columbia (S.C.) Speedway, Ned Jarrett roared back to the lead lap, took the lead on Lap 137 and began lapping the field. He beat Marvin Panch by one lap.

1967: Darel Dieringer, driving for Junior Johnson, won at North Wilkesboro after leading all 400 laps from the pole. It was Dieringer’s seventh and final Grand National Series win.

1972: In his first career start for Wood Brothers Racing, David Pearson led 202 of 293 laps from the pole and scored the win at Darlington by one lap over Richard Petty. It was Pearson’s first win in 14 starts and his first speedway win in two seasons.

1989: In the official debut of Goodyear’s radial-ply tires, Dale Earnhardt won at North Wilkesboro over Alan Kulwicki and Mark Martin. The introduction of the radial tires had been aborted during Speedweeks in Daytona following crashes by Earnhardt and Bill Elliott that were blamed on tire failures, according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era.”

Dr. Robert Hubbard, co-inventor of HANS Device, passes away

Michigan State University
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Dr. Robert Hubbard, the co-inventor of the Head and Neck Support Device (HANS), died Tuesday.

A former professor in biomechanical engineering at Michigan State University, Hubbard created the HANS Device in the mid-80s with Jim Downing, his brother-in-law and a champion IMSA driver.

“Bob’s invention truly changed the world of auto racing safety and he was a kindhearted person who would help anyone in need,” HANS stated on its website. “He will be missed greatly.”

Hubbard and Downing set out to create the HANS device after the death of a racing friend as a result of a skull fracture. The duo began to develop, produce, sell and market the device in 1991, with Downing becoming the first driver to use the device when he wore an untested prototype in IMSA races.

Brett Bodine and Kyle Petty became the first Cup drivers to use the HANS device in July 2000, weeks after the death of Kenny Irwin Jr. from a basilar skull fracture in a wreck during Cup practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Petty’s son Adam was killed by a basal skull fracture in a crash during a Xfinity Series practice session at New Hampshire in May of that year.

Bodine first wore it for the July 23 event at Pocono Raceway.

During Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway in 2001, only five drivers reportedly planned to use it during the Daytona 500 qualifying races.

Only two more drivers, Ricky Craven and Jeff Burton, reportedly planned to wear the device for the Daytona 500, where Dale Earnhardt would die from head injuries in a crash on the last lap.

NASCAR mandated the use of the HANS Device and another safety device, the Hutchens, in October 2001.

According to Michigan State University in 2014, more than 200,000 HANS devices had been used by drivers since 1990.

No NASCAR drivers have been killed in on-track action since 2001.

In April 2017, Hubbard, Downing and Hubert Gramling were presented with the inaugural John Melvin Motorsport Safety Award by the Society of Automotive Engineers for their work on the HANS device.

“(Hubbard’s) development of that device was hugely important to motorsports,” said Burton, now a NASCAR on NBC analyst. “Clearly, it greatly helped the advancement of safety. The combination of the HANS and the head surround system, that combination of safety implementation revolutionized safety in motorsports, especially in stock cars. Neither works as effectively as it can without the other. Together they are an unbelievable advancement in safety.”

Other NASCAR drivers observed Hubbard’s passing on social media.