by Jim O'Dell Jr. BRASELTON, Ga. -- Monday at Road Atlanta, the Robert Yates Racing Team was practicing for the Save Mart Supermarkets 300k to be held May 7 at Sears Point International Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. While practice sessions generally are a solitary time on the track and with the crew, the excitement here was Ernie Irvan driving on a road course for the first time since near-fatal accident seven months ago. Although he has recently practiced on short tracks in NASCAR SuperTrucks, Busch series cars, and the Texaco Havoline Thunderbird, road courses are somewhat more demanding due to all the shifting that is required. It also doesn't help if you're wearing a patch over one eye. ``Driving with a patch is, well, I've never done it before,'' Irvan said. He said he remembered the Road Atlanta course once he got on it, driving a van on the track in the morning, laying out shift markers for himself and Dale Jarrett, driver of the No. 28 Ford. Irvan had driven the 11-turn circuit in a Busch Grand National race several years ago. His first practice session was cut short by something falling off the drive train. The second session was much longer and seemed quicker, though a bit twitchy in Turn 1 after the long front stretch. Irvan enthusiastically said he plans to race before the end of this year. He intends to compete in the SuperTruck series. For now, Irvan provides technical consulting for the Yates team, and with his runaway victory at Sears Point last year, plus finishing second in the other road course race, at Watkins Glen, N.Y., he knows what the cars at Road Atlanta can do. The car Jarrett was testing was the winning car from last year, while Irvan drove the Watkins Glen car. Irvan talked about the changes in his life since the horrible accident in Brooklyn, Mich., last year. He said that family is more important, as are good friends, who haven't left his side. ``Even though I'm in the East now, the people of Salinas sent me cards,'' he said, referring to his home town in central California. The whole racing world awaits Irvan's return to racing, but it's all up to his doctor and NASCAR. Irvan said his doctor doesn't know what it takes to drive a race car, but ``when it's NASCAR, they know what's happening with this test.'' Jarrett spoke of his performance this year, admitting that, while he has a good car, he's a pretty bad qualifier. He said he needs to work on his starting positions so he can pass just a few cars instead of practically the whole field. ``It's not a safe way to be winning a championship,'' Jarrett said. Winston Cup driver Michael Waltrip also was practicing at the track in his Pontiac Grand Prix. The Bahari Racing Team quietly went about their business while the hoopla surrounding Irvan was going on in the next garage. Also testing was the IMSA World Sports Car Ferrari 333SP of driver Wayne Taylor, the reigning series champion. During the lunch break, some of Taylor's team members were milling about Waltrip's car. Asked if he was getting some pointers from the Ferrari crew, Waltrip smirked, saying, ``Not that I'm aware of. If we are, it's between the crews.'' -30- Observations told to me (Ron) by Jim: The Ferrari was flying. Taylor started on course after Jarrett had about half-track lead on him, and in three laps he passed Jarrett. Must have been interesting for Jarrett! Larry McReynolds said he didn't want anyone in the Yates garage, and had someone from Havoline inform photographers that no pictures were to be taken of a particular person in the garage -- a man with balding white hair and glasses. The Havoline man would not give the name of the person, but said he was a much sought-after road course chassis man. ``We are lucky enough to have him, and I don't want anyone to know that we have him.'' They also wanted no pictures taken of their suspension setup. The second session was very good for Irvan. He was picking up about .4 seconds every lap. He was about a second slower than Jarrett. -- Ron O'Dell `Keeper'