Through the years, NASCAR has watched many drivers scratch and claw their way from the bottom, just to get a chance to compete at the highest level. Everything has to work out perfectly for these drivers to achieve their dreams.
Thanks to his talent and determination one driver not only fought his way into the Cup Series, but made his way to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500. He parlayed that into a championship caliber season until everything, including his life, was almost taken away from him.
The fight and passion inside of him led to a miraculous recovery and a once in a lifetime comeback story, that will live on in the history books forever.
In late 1987, the Winston Cup Series arrived to Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway for the 22nd race of the season. Dale Earnhardt led Bill Elliott in the standings by 608 points with only eight races remaining. When the 30 car field took the green flag Earnhardt flexed his muscle, leading 220 of the 400 laps en-route to his 11th win of the season. Although nobody had anything for Earnhardt that day, the race quietly marked the debut of one of his future championship rivals.
With only two career Busch Grand National Series starts to his name, 28 year old Ernie Irvan made his Winston Cup debut. Thanks to sponsorship from Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet, Irvan qualified 20th in his No. 56 Chevrolet. Irvan lasted 35 laps before engine issues ended his day early, eventually finishing 29th.
Irvan went on to drive four more races in 1987, which included a dazzling 8th place finish at Charlotte. His short stint in the Cup Series led to a full-time ride for 1988, driving the No. 2 Kroger Chevrolet for D.K. Ulrich. He finished 26th in points despite failing to qualify for four races.
The team built momentum for the following season with four top-15 finishes over his final nine races, after only notching one over his first 16 races. Ernie continued to improve and show flashes of stardom. This led to Irvan landing the No. 4 Kodak Oldsmobile for Morgan–McClure Motorsports, four races into the 1990 season.
Things couldn’t have started off any better for the pair, as Irvan finished third at Atlanta in his first race for his new team. The success didn’t stop there as he continued to break out, picking up six top-fives, 13 top-10s and three poles. In August, he earned his first career Winston Cup victory. Ernie finished a career high ninth in points, further cementing himself as a contender for the 1991 Winston Cup title.
The success continued for the pair as Irvan led off the year by winning the Daytona 500. He marked career highs in top-fives with 11 and top-10s with 19, and finished fifth in the standings. The 1992 season saw him struggle to build off of the momentum of his previous two seasons. He finished 11th in points, despite winning a career high three races.
After the tragic loss of defending champion Alan Kulwicki in early 1993, the NASCAR community was dealt yet another heart wrenching blow. Davey Allison passed away in July after the helicopter he was piloting crashed inside Talladega Superspeedway.
Robert Yates had the difficult task of finding a new driver for his No. 28 Havoline Ford and went with a race-by-race approach until he found someone permanent. After Robby Gordon and Lake Speed filled in for four races, Irvan was tapped as the new driver of the championship-caliber car.
Although he was faced with the tough task of taking over the No. 28, it was a huge break for Ernie’s career. He didn’t let that opportunity slip away.
Ernie drove the final nine races of the season behind the wheel of the No. 28 like a man on a mission. He had an incredible average finish of 10.2, which would have been third best over the entire Cup season. Irvan dominated on the field at Martinsville and Charlotte, winning both races and leading an eye-popping 730 of the 834 laps driven between the two races. His strong finish moved him up to a sixth place finish in the standings, but more importantly showed the other competitors that they would need to beat him to win the championship.
Looking back to his first career race, it would have been hard for anyone to imagine that less than seven years later he would be competing head-to-head with Earnhardt for the Winston Cup title but in 1994, that came true.
Over the first 20 races that season, the two drivers traded the points lead back and forth multiple times. At one point, the two drivers combined to win six of eight races. Irvan arrived at Michigan in August determined to re-gain the points lead, as he trailed Earnhardt by 27 points.
Ernie Irvan’s life and the entire Winston Cup landscape changed on August 20, as tragedy struck when he was seriously injured in a practice crash at Michigan. He suffered severe head and lung injuries and was only given a 10 percent chance of surviving the night.
Miraculously he slowly began to defy the odds, waking up from his coma and shedding the help from the life support system. The miracle continued as he was released from his rehabilitation center in October and even attended the season ending banquet in New York City in December.
Looking back to that tragic day in August, it was hard to see Ernie recovering enough to live a normal life, let alone even think about racing again.
Halfway through the 1995 season, Irvan continued to turn heads as he got behind the wheel of a car for a test session. He was still suffering from vision trouble which included seeing double and problems with his depth perception. His test session went well enough that Irvan was cleared to return to racing.
Less than 14 months after the accident that almost claimed his life, he made his debut in the new Craftsman Truck Series. Wearing a patch over one eye, Ernie started on the front row at North Wilkesboro and led 24 laps before mechanical issues ended his day early.
His weekend was not over as he also qualified inside the top-10 for the Winston Cup event that Sunday. Driving a No. 88 that was identical to the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford, Irvan led 31 laps and put a stamp on his amazing comeback with a sixth place finish.
The rest of the season saw Irvan back at the front of the field where he belonged and showing the world that he was still just as good as he was before his accident.
He reclaimed the seat of the No. 28 for the ’96 season, putting it on the outside of the front row for the Daytona 500. In his Gatorade Twin 125 qualifying race, Irvan led all 50 laps en-route to his first trip back to Victory Lane.
Following his win the success was harder to come by for Irvan and his Robert Yates Racing team, finishing inside the top-10 in just three of the first 10 races. As the weather warmed up, so did Ernie. He earned six straight top-five finishes, including a fifth in his return to Michigan. The momentum grew as Ernie soaked in an emotional return to Victory Lane at New Hampshire in July. His success continued as he won for the second time a few weeks later at Richmond. He eventually finished the season 10th in points. It was a season that could be considered a complete success for a man that fought his way back to the top.
As if Ernie needed to prove anything else, he returned to Michigan in 1997 and defeated the track that tried to defeat him, leading 33 laps on his way to Victory Lane. Unfortunately a few years later, another crash ended the career of Irvan prematurely.
Overall, Ernie Irvan competed in 313 races, winning 15 times and finishing a high of fifth in points.
Two week ago, we caught up with Ernie Irvan to discuss his life today, his career, and everything in between.
Ernie is currently involved with his son Jared’s racing career, although they are currently racing as much as they can with the funds that they have. “That’s the hardest part”, he said. “If we could race, we would race every week. Its just not that easy.”
For a while, Ernie acted as the team owner and sponsor for Jared’s team and did not hire outside help to save on funds. “I think I was short timing him because he wasn’t able to show all of his talent and I feel like being an owner is more of a harm than a help to your team.”
In the past he owned his own NASCAR team but would rather be part of a team today and have someone else own it and take care of all the headaches.
“It’s just a shame because there are tons of short track racers out there that won’t ever get the opportunity. It has definitely changed. I was one of the last ones that came into the sport with no money and put some things together with myself and Marc Reno. The next thing I know I’m driving for someone and running for rookie of the year. Driving for somebody else and winning the Daytona 500. It all happened really fast.”
On a normal day, Ernie can be found working out on his farm. He mentioned how that afternoon he loaded up 200 bales of hay and moved them around before putting them up in the lodge.
Despite not being found at the track every race, the racer inside Ernie is still burning bright as you can find him driving slot cars in Concord, NC two days a week.
He keeps up with the current NASCAR product, normally listening to SIRIUS Satellite Radio to follow everything that is going on in the sport. Since his retirement mid-way through the 1999 season, Ernie usually attends 2-3 races a year, normally at Charlotte but he has also been to Daytona and Talladega.
Speaking about regrets about his career he quickly chimed in “I had a really good career, but looking back on it maybe I should have been more associated with my race fans. I just took it for granted and figured I’m just doing what I love to do. I paid attention to them but not as much as I think I would do today. I figure I could have done better for my fans and my sponsors.”
Ernie said that out of all of the drivers who race today, he sees Kyle Busch as the most like himself. “Not just because he won the championship, but I feel like he drives a lot like I did and he gets out of the car like I did. I feel really proud about that I could compare myself to a driver like Kyle Busch because that’s a compliment”
Throughout his career Ernie Irvan has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but he still maintained the drive to compete for wins on a weekly basis in the Winston Cup Series. His triumphs and success helped write possibly the greatest comeback story in all of sports.