By KEVIN KELLY
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 22, 2001
He thanked his hard-working crew, which toiled to prepare a backup car in record time, and praised God for the victory.
But if not for Jeff Gordon's decision to wear the HANS (head and neck support) device, the three-time Winston Cup champion might not have won The Winston all-star race, as he did early Sunday.
On the first lap, Gordon lost control of his car and smacked the outside wall.
"I haven't been able to test the HANS device -- didn't want to test the HANS device -- but I had a chance to do it tonight," Gordon said. "I knew I hit it pretty good, but the HANS device did its job. It worked well."
The right front of Gordon's car hit the wall in an impact similar to the one that killed Dale Earnhardt during the Daytona 500 in February at Daytona International Speedway. Earnhardt, who was not wearing the HANS, became the fourth NASCAR driver to die of a basal skull fracture.
Gordon, who this season became the first NASCAR driver to win a race while wearing the HANS, walked away with a sore wrist and neck, and won in his backup car.
"I hit at a nasty angle," Gordon said. "I really didn't hit as hard as you could possibly hit with the right front corner, but I hit at about the worst possible angle with the right front, which made that impact a little bit worse than it should have probably been.
"My neck snapped really bad. It really stretched out there. ... We just don't realize how far you stretch until something like that happens."
INDY SURPRISE: Lost in the attention A.J. Foyt received for qualifying two drivers on Indianapolis 500 bump day was Cory Witherill.
An American Indian from Santa Monica, Calif., who drives for Indy Regency Racing, Witherill averaged 221.621 mph after not having gone 220 all week. His speed bumped Shigeaki Hattori and earned the 31st starting spot.
"It means a lot," said Witherill, a Navajo. "It's a dream come true. I've been wanting to be a part of the Indy 500 for so long. Like five years ago when I started racing the Indy Lights series, I didn't think I would have this day right now.
"I am pretty excited. I work really well under pressure. I like it. To be a Native American and representing them, it's an unreal feeling."
KING OF SPEED: Five-time NHRA champion Kenny Bernstein announced that he will retire at the end of the 2002 season.
A 55-time winner in NHRA competition, Bernstein won consecutive Funny Car championships from 1985-1988, then switched to Top Fuel in 1990. He won that division's championship in 1996, making him the only driver to win titles in both. "Through all my years of owning race teams and being in various businesses, I've always had a sense of when it was time to make a change," Bernstein said.
"You can always let your mind rationalize one more championship, one more race win, but it's time for the gold watch, and we feel we can go out at the top of our game."
ODDS AND ENDS: CART driver Kenny Brack, who won the Firestone Firehawk 500 on Saturday in Japan, leads Helio Castroneves by three points in the standings. ... The 33 cars that qualified for the Indy 500 comprise the closest field for the race. The difference from pole-sitter Scott Sharp to Billy Boat was 4.509 mph. The previous closest was in 1999, with 5.087 mph separating Arie Luyendyk from Wim Eyckmans. ... Team owner Fred Treadway replaced Raul Boesel, who qualified for the Indy 500 on Sunday, with Felipe Giaffone, who will have to start at the back of the field. ... Busch Grand National regular Bobby Hamilton Jr. will drive the No. 33 Chevrolet in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 while Lakeland native Joe Nemechek recovers from injuries sustained in a crash May 15. ... Gordon will chat at 11 a.m. today on NASCAR.com. He will appear on CNN's Larry King Live at 9 p.m.
- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.