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Irvan Ends 12-Year Cup Career

Irvan got his first full-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series ride in D.K. Ulrich's No. 2 Chevrolet.

Ernie Irvan is always up for a drivers challenge. Look at his track record, in both his racing career and his personal life, and it is quite clear that Irvan is a feisty competitor. From the time he decided to move to the Carolinas until he signed with the MB2 Motorsports program in late 1997, Irvan has taken one hard look at the circumstances in front of him and forged on without hesitation. Irvan faced quite a few obstacles entering the 1998 season. Not only did he change from the familiar colors of Robert Yates Racing, but he opted to drive for a team in only its sophomore season of competition.

Irvan leads the field into Turn 1 in his Pontiac at the start of the Pepsi 400 at Michigan on Sunday, Aug. 16, 1998.

Irvan began his racing career driving karts in California in 1968 at the age of nine. He won the California Championship at the age of 15. In 1974, Irvan finished second in the country in his class at the national kart championship races. In 1975, Irvan moved up to stock cars at the age of 16 at Stockton 99 Speedway and was victorious in his first race on asphalt in a semi-main event. From then until 1981 Ernie raced every weekend at Madera and Stockton, CA, winning numerous feature events. He missed his high school graduation ceremony to race at Riverside, CA. During this time, he lost best friend Tim Williamson in a racing accident at Riverside, just months before he was slated to test in Winston Cup.

To add to Irvan's mounting challenge, he was slated to drive a Pontiac for the first time in his 11-year career. Critics quickly changed their tone when Irvan and the MB2 Motorsports team captured a solid sixth-place finish at the Daytona 500. The team went on to pick up 11 top-10 finishes and three pole positions. Irvan showed his versatility by turning the fastest lap at three very different tracks including Indianapolis, Michigan and Martinsville.

With 30 races under their belts and a better knowledge of each other, Irvan thinks 1999 can be a ground breaking year for the entire team. Irvan refused to let the challenges in 1998 deter him from being successful. For him, these were just minor obstacles in a life of adventures. Irvan's path toward a racing career started early in life, growing up in Salinas, Calif., and spending a lot of time at Laguna Seca Raceway, only a couple of miles from his home. When Irvan elected to leave his home state he had a total of $300 in his pocket and an atlas that showed the way to North Carolina, the heart of stock car racing country. In the fledgling years of his career Irvan took most any job that would get him one step closer to his dream of being a stock car racer, including installing grandstand seats at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Irvan takes a victory lap at the Jiffy Lube 300 at New Hampshire on Sunday, July 14, 1996. It was Irvan's first points win since his crash in August 1994.

He spent many nights at local stock car races at Concord Motorsports Park, only a few miles from Charlotte Motor Speedway. Irvan had driven two races for Marc Reno at the end of 1987, including his Winston Cup debut at Richmond International Raceway, when a representative of US Motorsports came looking for Irvan at Concord Motorsports Park. Owner/driver D.K. Ulrich was looking to turn in his driving shoes if he could find a driver to fill the seat. Ulrich had watched Irvan and decided to give him a shot. Irvan climbed behind the wheel of the No. 2 at Martinsville and bettered Ulrich's fastest time. As a result, Irvan had his first full-time ride in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. The marriage was a happy one for two years, but they went their separate ways at the conclusion of 1989.

Ernie Irvan sits in his No. 4 Kodak Chevrolet while in the pits.

Irvan made three starts for Junie Donlavey in early 1990 before moving over to Morgan-McClure Motorsports and the familiar No. 4. Irvan had a stellar first year with Morgan McClure. He picked up his first career Winston Cup win at Bristol Motor Speedway in just his 79th start in the series. Earlier that same year at Bristol, Irvan marked another milestone by picking up his first career pole position in his 65th attempt. Irvan's time at Morgan-McClure was lucrative for everyone involved. In 105 starts in the No. 4, Irvan and the team earned seven wins and nine pole positions, including the 1991 Daytona 500. Irvan also finished a career best fifth in driver points in 1991. Irvan's stock continued to rise and following the untimely death of superstar Davey Allison, he was selected to join Robert Yates Racing to pilot the No. 28.

Irvan had a major void to fill with the team but he rose to the challenge. Irvan instantly showed signs of brilliance and in their first 29 starts together, he and the team collected five wins, seven pole positions and 21 top-10 finishes including 18 top fives. Irvan was at the top of his game when a crash at Michigan Speedway in 1994 threatened to take his life and end his career. But with a fierce will to live and an outpouring of support, Irvan amazed doctors by climbing into a race car a little more than a year later. Irvan was back to his old form in no time, twice finishing in the top 10 in his first three starts back in a race car. Irvan continued with Robert Yates Racing for two full seasons in1996 and 1997 and earned three more wins, the most notable of which came at Michigan Speedway on June 15, 1997. Irvan opted for greener pastures in 1998, signing with MB2 Motorsports to drive the No. 36 Skittles Pontiac. The team instantly found drivers lines of communication and a mutual desire to succeed.

September 4, 1999 Darlington, S.C.; By Dustin Long, Staff Writer; News & Record

Ernie Irvan's voice quivered, his eyes welled and his speech rambled as he announced his retirement from NASCAR Winston Cup on Friday afternoon at Darlington Raceway. Although a sad occasion for the 40-year-old Irvan, the announcement — following his crash at Michigan last month and his third head injury in five years — relieved many. None more than his wife Kim. "It's sort of like a cat with nine lives," she said, sitting to Irvan's right with 6-year-old Jordan between them and 17-month-old Jared nearby. "He's used about eight of them, and we feel like you just can't keep pushing the envelope. "It was a miracle in 1994. Most people get one miracle ... and we got ours," she said as she cried.

Irvan noses out a close field to win a 1996 Gatorade 125-Mile Qualifying Race at Daytona. It marked Irvan's first win since his accident in 1994.

Friend Marc Reno, who owned the car Irvan made his Cup debut in at Richmond in 1987, shared Kim Irvan's feelings. "I'm just glad that he made the decision because I didn't want to go to his funeral," Reno said. "I've spent enough time in the hospitals with him. "Now, we can hang out as buddies." Now, Irvan can be just a family man.

After Irvan's near-fatal crash at Michigan in 1994, he was given a 10 percent chance of survival. Later, doctors told him he'd be lucky to drive his children to school. He returned to win three Cup races, but driving Jordan to school last week reminded Irvan what meant more. "From that moment on I said, 'This is something that I treasure,'" Irvan said. "I don't want to retire, but I know that it's the smart thing to do." The decision, though, was not easy. "There have been a lot of times where people thought I'd never be able to sit here and comprehend what I'm saying and that I'm retiring," Irvan said in an infield media center crammed with more than 200 people, including Reno, car owner Robert Yates and crew chief Larry McReynolds. "It's really hard to say (retiring) because it means that I'm never going to drive a Winston Cup car. Being able to sit here with my son, little girl and wife, that's what makes it all worthwhile."

In one of the sport's most emotional moments, Irvan drives across the finish line at Michigan Speedway on Sunday, June 15, 1997, to win the Miller 400.

Irvan decided to retire Wednesday after consulting with a Charlotte-area doctor. "When the doctor picks up the paper, he's going to see that I decided to retire," Irvan said as Grand National cars practiced. "He didn't tell me I needed to retire. He told me that there are a lot of things that can hinder me from being able to carry on a regular life. It was my decision to retire." It's a decision that closes a sometimes-controversial 12-year Winston Cup career. It was a career that featured 15 victories, including the 1991 Daytona 500, and 21 runner-up finishes in 313 career starts. Irvan's reputation was built almost as much around his aggressive driving as his success. His driving style sometimes caused problems and led him to apologize to the competitors during a driver's meeting at Daytona in July 1991. "He's been a great talent on the racetrack," Yates said. "He's made a lot of fans stand up all race long. I have to reserve the best driver for someone else (Davey Allison). (Ernie) is the toughest, he's flat the toughest who has ever been."

Irvan, in the No. 36 M&M's Pontiac, races against his former ride, the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford, with Kenny Irwin behind the wheel.

That competitiveness is what made the decision to retire more difficult. Irvan consulted Yates on Monday and Tuesday. "Robert, would you sit me back in the 28 car?" Irvan asked his former boss in a phone call last week. "I didn't quite understand," Yates said. "What he was searching now, he was trying to make that decision. He was just trying to say, 'I just want to hear you say that I can get it done.' "You and I, we could win races," Irvan told Yates on the phone. "You know that?" "Yes sir, we could do that," Yates told him.

The voice Yates heard, though, was different from one he had heard before. "He didn't have that enthusiasm, I want to come back kind of thing," Yates said. "He wanted to retire with him making the decision but him still knowing he could come back and win." Retirement became a topic after Irvan crashed in Grand National practice on Aug. 20 at Michigan Speedway. The accident came five years to the day of the crash that almost killed him. Irvan's Grand National car spun in turn 4 as it traveled about 160 mph. The car hit the wall on the driver's side and knocked Irvan unconscious. He was airlifted to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., and spent three nights before being released. Irvan suffered a bruised lung and a mild head injury.

"When I heard about it, I was totally sick," Dale Jarrett said the day of Irvan's crash at Michigan. "I mean, it's not a drivers feeling to know a drivers friend like Ernie has gone through something else like that. He's had enough of this kind of stuff. I just want him to be able to live a drivers life." Irvan's injury came less than a year after he was briefly left unconscious after a crash at Talladega in October. Irvan started the next week at Daytona before he was relieved. Irvan sat out the season's final three races. "I think most of us are relieved and have a lot of compassion for the decision and how hard it has to be," said friend Mark Martin. "He's accomplished a tremendous amount, and he's had tremendous success in the sport. He's done just about all of it, so it's a drivers time to take that and take a new direction with his life."

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