Irvan's win at N.H. remains a most inpsiring moment

- Contributor
Thursday, Jul. 12, 2012

It forever will be ranked high among the most inspiring, touching and dramatic developments in NASCAR history.

The tears-in-the-eyes and lumps-in-the-throat event took place on July 15, 1996 at New Hampshire International Speedway, a track where the Cup Series teams presently are gathered once again for Sunday’s Lenox Tools 300.

On that memorable Sabbath 16 years ago, driver Ernie Irvan, given only a 10 percent chance to live 99 weeks earlier after being critically hurt in a crash, stirringly marked his miracle recovery by winning the Jiffy Lube 300.

"People doubted we could ever do this again," a deeply-moved Irvan said following his victory. "I never doubted, and neither did my team."

Irvan, then 37, sustained injuries to the head and lungs on Aug. 20, 1994, when he hit the wall head-on at almost 190 mph during a practice run for the Goodwrench 400 at Michigan International Speedway. He was hospitalized for weeks in Michigan then Charlotte.

Irvan returned to the Cup tour on Oct. 1, 1995 in the Tyson Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway, finishing sixth.

He won a 125-mile qualifying race leading to the Daytona 500 in February of '96, but that didn't count as an official event.

Irvan's first "points race" victory in the comeback was scored in his 19th start after being sidelined more than a year.

Ernie's most recent previous victory had been on May 15, 1994, in the Save Mart 300 on the road course at Sears Point in his native California.

"I knew in my heart and my mind that Sears Point wasn't going to be my last victory," said Irvan.

With a crowd estimated at 82,000 lustily waving him on, many crying openly, Irvan drove the No. 28 Ford to the checkered flag 5.47 seconds ahead of runner-up Dale Jarrett, his teammate at Robert Yates Racing, based in Charlotte.

Ironically, the triumph came at the racetrack where Davey Allison ran his last race. Allison was Irvan's predecessor on the Yates team. Allison died of injuries he suffered in a helicopter crash on July 12, 1993 - the day after the 300 in New Hampshire - as he attempted to land the aircraft at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

After the finish in 1996, Irvan whipped his black Thunderbird around and took a clockwise victory lap, known as a "Polish Lap" because the late Alan Kulwicki did it on the occasion of his first victory at Phoenix Raceway in 1988.

Kulwicki, the 1992 Winston Cup champion, died on April 1, 1993, in a plane crash at Blountville, Tenn.

"I went around backward in tribute to Davey and Alan, " said Irvan. "I admired them both. Someday we'll be up there in heaven with them. They're probably up there racing each other right now."

Said Irvan's crew chief, Larry McReynolds: "Gosh, the emotions are overflowing. ... What a story, for Ernie to win for the first time back at the last place Davey ran is just incredible.

"Ernie's comeback is complete now. We're not in the comeback mode anymore. We're ready to win more races."

Finishing third through fifth were Ricky Rudd, Jeff Burton, and Robert Pressley.

As usual at the 1.058-mile layout, now named New Hampshire Motor Speedway, it was a race of pit strategy and track position, especially since the asphalt began breaking up in Turns 3-4.

Irvan, with Yates and McReynolds plotting the strategy, pitted on the 245th of the 300 laps, taking on right side tires and fuel. When rivals pitted later, Irvan assumed the lead on Lap 278 and was ahead the rest of the way.

"The biggest concern the final laps was getting through the 'gravel pit' in Turn 3-4, where the track was tearing up, " said Irvan. "Obviously, we made it all right.

"I'm happy to be a winner again. There was no doubt in my mind that this day would come."

Irvan retired in 1999 with 15 victories, including two Daytona 500s and two triumphs in equally fast 500-milers at Talladega Superspeedway. He subsequently was honored as one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers. Irvan now owns and operates businesses in the Charlotte area.

There was no measuring what Irvan's triumph in 1996 at the track deep in a New England forest meant at the moment to the psyche of his fellow drivers.

Despite the awful injuries to his brain and lungs, Irvan somehow mustered a manner to persevere. And in the comeback embracing both incredible fortitude and courage, he was a winner again in the most competitive form of auto racing in the world.

His return - and success - was noted by others.

"I think what Ernie has done serves as an inspiration for all of us, " said Rudd immediately after the race. "He has shown us that if we get hurt real bad, we can overcome the injuries and return to race competitively again. That's a heck of a contribution ... an inspiration."

Added Irvan’s teammate Jarrett:

"I can't express how glad I am to see Ernie win. It's just terrific that he can come back and win on a tough race track like this. I think it's one of the great days in racing."

And so it remains …

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