MRN Flashback: Irvan's Michigan Triumph

Ernie Irvan

The Miller 400 at Michigan turned out to be Ernie Irvan's final visit to Victory Lane. (Photo: ISC Archives)

There are individual days that play a role whenever any professional athlete’s career is considered.

Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run on April 5, 1974, to break Babe Ruth’s career home run record. When Wayne Gretzky retired on April 18, 1999, he had scored 2,857 points, almost a thousand more than his next-closest competitor, although Mark Messier had played in 279 more games. On April 20, 1986, Michael Jordan scored 63 points against the Boston Celtics, the eighth time he had scored more than 50 points in a playoff game. Anthony Joseph Foyt wrote his name into the Indianapolis record book on May 30, 1977, when he took his fourth Indianapolis 500 win.

In the case of Ernie Irvan, two dates quickly come to mind: Saturday, August 20, 1994, and Sunday, June 15, 1997.

On the first day, Winston (now Sprint) Cup teams were practicing at the two-mile Michigan International Speedway for the GM Goodwrench Dealer 400 when Irvan cut a tire on his Robert Yates-prepared Thunderbird and crashed nearly head-on into the Turn 2 wall. Ted Musgrave was on the track at the same time and offered the opinion that the impact came at nearly 170 MPH.

“I was maybe 10 car lengths in back of Ernie and when he exited Turn 2, he headed kind of straight into the wall,” Musgrave told reporters a short time after the crash. “As he was heading to the wall, I saw his right front dip like he may have cut down a tire . . . He just went straight.”

Irvan was airlifted to a hospital with multiple injuries. Doctors weren’t sure if his prognosis was good as he was placed on life support in critical condition. The recovery was long and difficult, but Irvan persevered to climb back behind the wheel of one of Yates’ Fords just over one year after his horrendous crash.

Fast forward 21 months. Irvan had taken two victories in 1996 but was winless in the 1997 campaign heading into the Miller 400, the 14th race of the year.

Irvan started his Texaco Havoline Ford 20th when the 43-car field took the green flag. It took 10 cautions and 163 laps for Irvan to work his No. 28 Thunderbird into the lead. Once he got there, he led all but five of the remaining laps.

Bill Elliott took command for one lap, and then Musgrave took control for four laps. Irvan reassumed the lead with 21 laps left, and set sail. Irvan beat Elliott to the finish line by nearly three seconds.

In Victory Lane, Irvan told MRN Radio’s lead pit reporter Jim Phillips that perhaps the win would close the mouths of people who had questioned his ability to contend at NASCAR’S top level.

“We’ve been telling everybody that if we just have a little bit of luck we’re going to win some races,” Irvan said. “There’s no reason we can’t go on to the new race track in Fontana (today’s Auto Club Speedway, sister track to MIS) and carry it on. Who knows if we’re going to win, but I think we’ll have a great car.”

The 1997 Miller 400 turned out to be the event that closed the circle on Irvan’s Michigan journey from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. As far as carrying it on to Fontana, Irvan would fall short. He finished 37th just seven days after his Michigan victory when the engine on his No. 28 Ford blew.

Although he competed for two more seasons in NASCAR’s premier series, it would also turn out to be the final on-track victory of 15 he scored during a 13-year career.

This week, MRN Flashback Friday turns its attentions to what might have been Ernie Irvan’s greatest triumph. Barney Hall and Allen Bestwick lead the MRN coverage team as you can relive the 1997 Miller 400 from Michigan International Speedway. The online rebroadcast begins at Noon (ET) Friday exclusively on MotorRacingNetwork.com.

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