ERNIE IRVAN

by Lyn Jeffers of

The Diecast Digest

Ernie Irvan has been to the top of the mountain. He knows how he got there. Now he has embarked on another expedition. His goal: To once again reach that pinnacle.

In NASCAR Winston Cup racing, reaching the top is not easy. It wasn't for Irvan. He like most of his fellow competitors started at the bottom and worked his way up. Just to make it into Winston Cup, Ernie drove in several lower divisions. Once there, he still needed someone to open the door.

He and fellow Californian Marc Reno decided to do it together, and instead of knocking on the door, they busted through. In their first outing in 1987, Irvan earned a first-round qualifying spot (20th) at Richmond. The follow-up was an impressive top 10 finish at Charlotte. Ernie's Cup career was underway as he scaled yet another peak of the mountain.

Driving for D.K. Ulrich in 1988 and 1989, Irvan gained valuable experience on the Cup circuit. He began 1990 with Junie Donlavey but after three races, he got the next break he needed when Morgan-McClure put him in the seat of the No. 4 Kodak Oldsmobile. Together each won their first race that year (Bristol). Ernie also won three poles, the first of what now totals 21. Before leaving Morgan-McClure two-thirds of the way through the 1993 season, Irvan would put the yellow No. 4 in victory lane six more times.

While Ernie's stay at the Abingdon, VA-based Kodak team was very successful, he left to replace the late Davey Allison in Robert Yates' No. 28 Texaco Havoline Thunderbird. That car, the No. 28, was on top of the mountain. It was considered THE BEST, and Irvan did nothing to prove otherwise by winning twice in the last nine races of the '93 season.

In the first 20 races of 1994, Irvan won three more times, had 13 top-fives and 15 top-10's and was only 27 points out of the lead before suffering his near fatal accident at Michigan. After sitting out 14 months while recovering, Ernie returned to his Yates ride and won three more races during the '96 and '97 seasons.

Last fall brought the announcement that many anticipated Irvan and Yates were parting ways, and Ernie would replace Derrike Cope in the new Skittles Pontiac, No. 36. Irvan was back down the mountain ready to start another climb up to the top.

In making the announcement, Irvan said, "The Skittles team is a young team with tremendous potential. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to grow with them. All the elements for success are in place and I think this is one of the best opportunities in NASCAR Winston Cup racing."

The Skittles team was formed by Nelson Bowers of Chattanooga and Tom Beard and Read Morton Jr. of Atlanta prior to the '97 season. They bought cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports, and that tie-in was impressive to Irvan.

"A lot of what they had to offer wasn't financial," Ernie said. "Basically, their background is as a new team, but they've got a tie-in with Hendrick Motorsports with cars and motors, and that's something that is crucial to have a good race team."

Irvan said he was also excited about working with a young crew chief with a well-known name, Pemberton, in this case, Robin's younger brother, Ryan.

Since Ernie is on his way back up the mountain, perhaps it is appropriate to take a look at how he got started, and follow his career to where it is now.

1968. Started racing karts in native Cailfornia at age nine.

1975. Moved up to stock cars at 16...Won a race in only five starts.

1978. Won 15 of 23 starts (.652 average) to capture Stockton (CA) Speedway Championship.

1983. Determined to seek his racing fortunes in the East, Irvan left California with everything he owned packed in the bed of a small Dodge pickup and $300 in his pocket...Concerned that $300 wouldn't be enough, he made a pit stop in Las Vegas, won $400 more, and started out again.

1984. Irvan did whatever it took - welded grandstand seats at Charlotte Motor Speedway, unloaded Ken Schrader's moving van, built race cars - and talked, prodded and pestered to get his chance to drive...Racked up nine wins driving a Late Model at Concord (N.C.) Speedway.

1987. Driving a No. 56 Chevrolet Monte Carlo he built and prepared with former crew chief Marc Reno, and with sponsorship from Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet, Ernie made a memorable Winston Cup debut, earning a first-round (20th) qualifying spot for the Wrangler Jeans Indigo 400 at Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway...On Sept. 13, an overheated engine sidelined Irvan after only 35 laps, relegating him to a 29th place finish and an $860 payday.

1988. Competed in 25 of 29 Winston Cup races, driving the No. 2 Kroger Chevrolets and Pontiacs fielded by D.K. Ulrich...In the closest battle in NASCAR history, Irvan lost Rookie-of-the-Year honors to Ken Bouchard by a mere three points (242-239)...Best finish was 11th at Martinsville (September).. .Winnings totaled $97,570.

1989. Punctuated first full Winston Cup campaign with several strong runs at the wheel of the U.S. Pontiac...Started 25th at Bristol (April), and needed only 38 laps on the high-banked half-mile oval to catch leader Mark Martin and grab the lead...In all, led three times for 56 laps before being sidelined by an accident on lap 167...Sixth place at Martinsville (September) was best of four top-l0 finishes...Earned $155,329 and finished 22nd in the final point standings.

1990. Started season at wheel of Junie Donlavey's No. 90 Bull's Eye Barbecue Sauce Ford...Only four races into the season, filled surprise vacancy in Morgan-McClure Kodak Oldsmobile...Started 30th in first race with new team at Atlanta (March), but charged to a stellar third-place finish, the first top-five of his career...Further fulfilled promise with first Winston Cup pole position in qualifying for the Valleydale Meats 500 at Bristol (April) and first Winston Cup victory, in the Busch 500 at Bristol (August)...Finished his breakthrough campaign with three poles, one victory, six top-five and 17 top-l0 finishes, $535,280 in winnings and ranked ninth in the final points standings.

1991. Out dueled a star-studded lead pack to place the Morgan-McClure Chevrolet in victory lane at the Daytona 500, the sports richest, most prestigious race...Four years previous, remembered watching the 500 on a borrowed black and white television while he was washing cars, one of the many jobs he had to support both his family and struggling racing career...Notched his next win at Watkins Glen, N.Y. (August), demonstrating his versatility by scoring his first three victories on a short track, super speedway and road course...Improving rapidly, Irvan ended the year with two wins, three second-place and four fourth-place finishes among his 11 top-fives...Scored 19 top-l0 finishes en route to $1,079,017 in winnings and fifth in the final points standings.

1992. Experienced a roller-coaster campaign...Highs included marriage to Kim on November 21, three more victories - Sonoma (June), Daytona (July) and Talladega (July)...Also added three more pole positions, nine top-five and l1 top-l0 finishes, $996,885 in winnings and ranked 10th in the final points standings...lows included a broken collarbone suffered in an accident during a Busch Series race at Atlanta (March) and 12 finishes of 24th or worse, including seven DNFs.

1993. Added poles at Dover (June) and Daytona (July), and a victory at Talladega (May), to bring his record with Morgan-McClure to nine poles, seven wins and 51 top-l0 finishes in 105 starts...Following the death of Davey Allison in a July helicopter crash, worked free of his Morgan-McClure contract to take over Robert Yates' No. 28 Ford, beginning with the Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington (September).. .Molded quickly with new mates, scoring five front-row starts, including two poles and two victories in nine remaining races...Dedicated emotional Martinsville (September) win to Allison and ran away with Charlotte (October) race, leading all but six laps...Ranked ninth upon his departure from Morgan-McClure and climbed to sixth in the final standings with RYR.

1994. Through the first 20 events of 1994, was dominant contender for the NASCAR Winston Cup Championship...Entering the Goodwrench Dealer 400 at Michigan (August), he matched perennial title favorite Dale Earnhardt win for win (three apiece), led in top-five finishes and winnings, and trailed by only 27 points after pacing the standings for most of the season.

In a frightening instant, during an early Saturday morning practice session at Michigan, his fight for the title turned to a fight for life...According to drivers running with him, a right front tire deflated, sending Irvan's car into the Turn 2 wall at over 170 mph. Despite critical brain and lung injuries that left him with only a 10 percent chance of survival, Irvan clung to life for the first two days, then rallied to begin his long road to recovery.

By early September, Irvan had progressed to "fair" condition and was removed from ventilator support. By mid-September, he was well enough to be transferred from Saint Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, MI, to the Charlotte Institute of Rehabilitation in Charlotte.

Less than two months later, in the most dramatic moment of the season-ending NASCAR Awards Banquet in New York, Irvan walked on stage to a standing ovation at the Waldorf-Astoria's Grand Ballroom to receive the True Value Hard Charger Award...Despite missing 11 races due to injury, he still had raced among the top five for more miles than any driver.

1995. Exactly one year after his transfer to the Charlotte rehabilitation hospital - a difficult year of arduous morning workouts, attempting to answer unanswerable questions and surviving microscopic scrutiny to prove that he was fit to drive - NASCAR cleared Irvan for competition (September 16).

After rained-out qualifying eliminated him from the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series field at Martinsville the week before, Irvan qualified his truck second for the Sept. 30 event at North Wilkesboro. He drove "like Ernie Irvan" from the start, battling polesitter and eventual series champion Mike Skinner and bringing the crowd to its feet by passing for the lead on lap six. Before he was sidelined by a mechanical problem after 75 laps, Irvan led 24 circuits.

The very next day, Oct. 1, he made his dramatic return to Winston Cup. After starting seventh, he advanced to third by Lap 47 and took the lead on Lap 125. He held the point for 31 laps and finished on the same lap with the winner, in sixth.

Irvan etched an exclamation point on his comeback with a brilliant performance at Phoenix (October). After being wrecked in practice, he started his backup car last in the 44-car field. Irvan sliced through the field to seventh by lap 75, then vaulted into the lead by taking on only two fresh tires during the first round of pit stops.

Despite the fact that seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt had four new tires, neither he nor anyone else could catch Irvan for the next 110 laps. Before he retired with engine failure on lap 197 of the 312-lap race, Irvan would lead more circuits than any driver.

Irvan capped 1995 with a solid performance. Starting 26th in the season finale at Atlanta (November), Irvan had his RYR Ford in fourth by mid-race and advanced to second before a late-race stop for fuel relegated him to a seventh-place finish.

1996. Just as his owner, teammates and sponsor had promised, Irvan returned to his No. 28 RYR Ford supported by exactly the same crew on duty the day he was hurt...Launched his comeback season by earning a front-row berth for the season-opening Daytona 500 alongside stablemate Dale Jarrett.

Also, captured the pole for the year's fastest race at Talladega (April), then scored dramatic victories at Loudon (July) and Richmond (September).

On his way to a final spot among Winston Cup's elite top l0, he collected 12 top-five and 16 top-l0 finishes, led 15 of the 31 events and earned a career-best $1,670,113.

1997. Irvan notched one win, the Miller 400 (June), at Michigan Speedway, the same track that almost took his life three years before...Also, earned two pole positions - Indianapolis' Brickyard 400 (August) and Talladega's DieHard 500 (October) - plus two outside poles, five top-five and 13 top-l0 finishes...14th in final points standings.

1998. Irvan entered his eighth full NASCAR Winston Cup season - his first at the helm of the No. 36 Skittles Pontiac-as one of the sports most exciting drivers...Entering 1998, Irvan had posted 261 career Winston Cup starts, scoring 15 wins, 68 top-five finishes, 108 top-l0 finishes, and over $8.7 million in winnings.

He has now gone over the $10 million mark in winnings. By winning the pole at the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis again and the Pepsi 400 at Michigan, both in August, he presently has 21 poles in his career.

So, after 23 races into the '98 season how does Ernie assess his new team?

"We've been getting better, doing more of the right things," he said. "We just need to work our way to the point where we're getting some top-five finishes. We've got two poles now and we're gaining ground. But we need to get some top fives and that's what we are working toward."

To Irvan, that's just another peak on his climb back up the mountain.

In his personal life, Ernie and Kim had a son, Jared Lawrence, born to them on February 9th. They also have a daughter, Jordan Leah, who is now five-years old.

On the business side, Ernie is partners with Kim, who operates El Cardenal, a Paso-Fino training center adjacent to their home in Mooresville, NC. The center breeds and trains these Spanish horses.

Ernie is also a partner with Mark Simo on a NASCAR Craftsman Truck team, which is driven by Boris Said.

If Irvan never makes it back to the top, he has had a very successful driving career. In fact, life in general looks pretty good for the Irvans no matter where Ernie winds up on his mountain climb.


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