In the 1990’s, Ernie Irvan was a beast, in more ways than one.
The California native often drove with reckless abandon in his early years, earning him the nickname “Swervin’ Irvan”.
But man, could he drive a race car.
Irvan got his big break when he replaced Phil Parsons in the No. 4 Kodak Film Oldsmobile the fourth race of the year at Atlanta in 1990. He finished third and never looked back. Irvan would get his first win later that season at Bristol. The next year, he bested Dale Earnhardt to win the 1991 Daytona 500.
During the 1993 season, Irvan left Morgan-McClure and jumped into the No. 28 Texaco Havoline Ford following the death of Davey Allison. By the start of 1994, Irvan and his Robert Yates team were primed to make a run for the championship. He won three of the first ten races and battled Earnhardt for the top spot in points for two-thirds of the season.
Then tragedy struck.
During practice at Michigan, Irvan blew a tire and slammed the wall. He suffered a fractured skull and was given a ten percent chance to live. Miraculously, he not only survived the crash but returned to racing just over a year later at North Wilkesboro.
In 1996, his comeback was complete when he won his first race since his near-fatal accident at New Hampshire.
The Hollywood ending came in 1997. Returning to the track that nearly took his life just three years prior, Irvan led the final 21 laps en route to victory at Michigan. It would be his final win in NASCAR.
Like many drivers of his era, Irvan is one of those guys who makes you think “what if”. While he was able to return from his frightening crash, it’s hard to deny that his career was forever derailed. He would have to hang it up for good in 1999 following injuries from another crash…at Michigan. We’ll never know if he would’ve won the championship in ’94, but we do know his injury made it a lot easier for Earnhardt to nab his record-tying seventh. He won the title that year by more than 400 points.
Being an Earnhardt guy as a kid, I wasn’t the biggest Ernie Irvan fan. Years later though, I can definitely respect his abilities behind the wheel. He was fun to watch, even during his Swervin’ Irvan days.