Eight weeks ago to the day _ at almost the same spot _ Adam Petty was also killed in a wreck during practice at New Hampshire International Speedway.
Irwin, the rookie of the year in 1998, was entering the third turn when his car struck the wall and flipped onto its roof during practice for the New England 300. The upper part of his body was covered with blood and he appeared lifeless when removed from the car.
Irwin, 30, died of "multiple injuries," Concord Hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Dearborn said, but offered no other details. Irwin's death was not announced at the track until nearly four hours after the crash.
Speculation centered on a stuck accelerator that would have prohibited Irwin from slowing enough to make the turn. That also was believed to be the reason for Petty's crash, but NASCAR has not been able to verify that.
Richard Petty, Adam's grandfather, said it was just a coincidence that the two drivers were killed in crashes at almost the same spot.
"Those things are circumstances beyond human control," said Petty, the king of stock car racing with a record 200 victories and seven championships. "There ain't nothing the matter with the racetrack.
"It's circumstances with the way you stop that thing so quick. Your body just can't stand it," he said.
Other drivers, though, were quick to criticize the track.
Rusty Wallace said there is a bump at the end of the long backstretch, where cars are going about 150 mph, and that most drivers are prepared for it. He also said dirt and rubber buildup on the asphalt surface also has made the 1.058-mile oval among the slickest on the circuit.
Mark Martin thinks the design of the track leaves little margin for error.
"This race track and Martinsville are a particular danger to stuck throttles because the corners are so sharp," Martin said. "At a lot of the bigger race tracks with sweeping corners, you have a chance to do something about stuck throttles."
Ward Burton, visibly upset after visiting Irwin in the infield care center before his friend was taken to the hospital, said he would like to see the almost-flat turns banked higher in view of the deaths here.
"Two's a problem," he said. "I think it needs to be addressed."
Officials of the track, which probably is criticized more than most on the circuit, had no immediate comment.
Operations director Kevin Triplett said officials immediately began looking at the twisted wreckage of what once was Irwin's sleek blue Chevrolet, hoping to learn what went wrong. Told of driver criticism of the track, including the need for higher banking in the turns, Triplett said NASCAR would listen all suggestions.
"But it's really too early to say what happened here," he said.
Wallace won the pole for the race Sunday with a record qualifying run of 132.089 mph, but Irwin was not far from his thoughts.
"These are the days that make you really sit back and look at yourself in the mirror and ask, 'Why do I do this?"' he said.
Irwin's car was withdrawn, and that of teammate Sterling Marlin didn't try a qualifying lap. But Marlin will attempt to make the field Saturday in second-round qualifying.
In addition to winning the Winston Cup rookie honors, Irwin was Craftsman Truck Series rookie of the year in 1997. But his Winston Cup career never took off, and he was fired last year by Robert Yates Racing after failing to produce in the vaunted No. 28 Ford.
Irwin went winless in 87 career starts. He had three poles and four top-five finishes. This year, Irwin stood 28th in the standings.
His death was the first in Winston Cup since Neil Bonnett and rookie Rodney Orr were killed after separate crashes in practice for the 1994 Daytona 500.
Irwin, an Indianapolis native, was single. He is survived by his mother and father, and three sisters. Funeral services were not announced.