As NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race victories go, they don’t come any more emotional than Ernie Irvan’s triumph at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in June 1996.
The fact that Irvan, one of the most feared superspeedway racers of his era, won on a short track might have been considered a mild upset. But what was really remarkable was the fact that he was even racing at all.
Less than two years earlier, in August 1994 at Michigan International Speedway, Irvan was critically injured in a crash during NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice. In those days, there were no SAFER barriers and when Irvan lost a right-front tire on his No. 28 Robert Yates Racing Ford, he went hard into the Turn 2 wall.
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The savage impact left Irvan with traumatic head and chest injuries. After being airlifted to a local hospital, doctors gave him only a 10 percent chance of survival. No one expected him to ever race again.
For the Yates squad, Irvan’s accident came little more than a year after Davey Allison, Irvan’s predecessor, was killed in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway. And it happened when Irvan was neck-and-neck with Dale Earnhardt in the championship hunt.
"It was one of the sickest feelings in the world. I said there is no way this could be happening to this race team again," said FOX NASCAR analyst Larry McReynolds, who was the crew chief for both Allison and Irvan.
Despite his dire prospects of survival, Irvan came back to NASCAR 14 months after his Michigan crash, racing at the now-defunct North Wilkesboro Speedway on Oct. 1, 1995. Irvan raced at the North Carolina short track with a patch over his eye.
The following February, Irvan won his Daytona Duel 125 qualifying race.
It would take until June 1996 for Irvan to win a points race, which he did when he captured the Jiffy Lube 300 at New Hampshire. It was a wildly competitive race, with 15 of the 40 drivers leading at least one lap and eight drivers leading at least 10 laps.
All told, Irvan led 38 of 300 laps on the afternoon, taking the lead for good from Ken Schrader after pit stops cycled through on Lap 278. Irvan took the checkered flag 5.47 seconds ahead of his Robert Yates teammate Dale Jarrett. Ricky Rudd and Jeff Burton made it an all-Ford top four, with Robert Pressley the first Chevrolet driver in fifth.
After his victory and at the urging of crew chief McReynolds, Irvan did a Polish victory lap in honor of Allison and Alan Kulwicki, who invented the clockwise lap before perishing in a plane crash near Bristol Motor Speedway in April 1993.
"I just stayed focused on what I had to do and didn’t think about winning until the last lap," Irvan said in Victory Lane. "… It’s amazing that we made it back to Victory Lane. Daytona was great, but this is what it’s all about, to win in Winston Cup."
Sadly, a second crash at Michigan, this one in August 1999, ended Irvan’s career just a year after he was named one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers of all-time. For his career, Irvan earned 15 Sprint Cup race victories, 68 top-five and 124 top-10 finishes in 313 starts.