When nominees are discussed for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, we think of figures who are/were titans in the garage and behind the scenes. We think of individuals who dominated, individuals who helped the sport to progress and individuals who made a huge impact on the fans.
Earnhardt, Petty, France, Pearson...those names ring loudly in the halls of NASCAR's storied history. But sometimes the little guys can make a pretty big impact as well.
That is, guys like Ernie Irvan.
Although many fans in this day and age are unaware of Irvan due to him keeping a low profile, the 1991 Daytona 500 winner overcame enough odds and was successful enough to be named to NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers list in 1998.
The unassuming driver began his career racing go-karts in California in 1968 at the age of nine before moving up to stockers at the age of 16. He would go on to win countless features before leaving home in 1982 and moving to North Carolina to make it in the stock car business.
After working various small jobs and making sporadic starts in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, he made a grab for Rookie of the Year honors in 1988, driving for D.K. Ulrich. Apart from failing to qualify for four races, he failed to score a single top-10. He lost the RotY battle to Ron Bouchard by three points, 242-239.
It was with Morgan-McClure Motorsports and their famous No. 4 Kodak Chevrolet that Irvan earned his breakthrough success in 1990. He earned his first win in August of that season at Bristol and finished the season with six top-fives and 13 top-10s, finishing ninth in points.
But after winning the 1991 Daytona 500, starting second and leading 29 laps, it was clear that Irvan had become one of NASCAR's newest stars. Keeping in mind that he had arrived at the previous season's 500 with an underfunded and unsponsored team, Irvan's rise to success was a quick and spectacular one.
Perhaps the one story that seemed to define Irvan's fighting spirit, though, began a few short years later during his first season driving the No. 28 Havoline Ford for Robert Yates Racing. A practice crash at Michigan in August of 1994 left Irvan with severe injuries and a slim chance of survival.
However, he addressed the fans at Charlotte in October of 1994, and by September of 1995, he was well enough to be behind the wheel of a race car when he ran both the Craftsman Truck race (finishing 30th after starting second) and the Winston Cup race (finishing sixth after starting seventh) at North Wilkesboro.
By the beginning of 1996, he was back to his winning ways, winning one of the qualifying races for the Daytona 500 and winning later in the season at Loudon and Richmond. He would ultimately finish 10th in points for the 1996 Winston Cup season, his first full season since 1993.
Has Ernie Irvan's career warranted a NASCAR HoF nomination?
However, it was his 15th and final victory in 1997 at Michigan, the site of the accident that almost ended his life, that could be seen as one of the sweetest of his career. After the 1997-98 season, Irvan was released and went to driving Pontiacs for MB2 racing, where he retired in the middle of the 1999-00 season after a second severe crash at Michigan.
Aside from his 1991 Daytona 500 victory, Irvan's successes were moderate in comparison with the champions he raced against, and although the closest he was to being a champion driver was in 1994, prior to his accident in Michigan, he was still one of the biggest names of his generation.
Irvan has maintained a low profile since his retirement, but he doesn't receive as much recognition as he should for his contributions to NASCAR. His story is one of determination, as he has come from dire circumstances to succeed in the biggest way possible, not once, but twice (going from unsponsored at Daytona to winning the Daytona 500 in the span of a year and winning in the Winston Cup Series after nearly losing his life later in his career).
Irvan had the same disposition as Dale Earnhardt or Rusty Wallace. He had the same level of toughness as some of the drivers that came before him, like Bobby Allison or Cale Yarborough. He's a legend in the motorsports world, and he should be recognized as one.
He's received numerous awards for his courage behind the wheel and numerous recognitions, and he was inducted into the Stock Car Hall of Fame in 2002 as well as the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame in 2005. It's time that the NASCAR Hall of Fame gives Irvan the ultimate recognition.