Note: M&M's Pontiac Grand Prix driver Ernie Irvan will make his 300th NASCAR Winston Cup start Sunday in the Goody's 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Irvan has 15 career victories, including the 1993 Goody's 500. Irvan talks about his career...
Note: M&M's Pontiac Grand Prix driver Ernie Irvan will make his 300th NASCAR Winston Cup start Sunday in the Goody's 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Irvan has 15 career victories, including the 1993 Goody's 500. Irvan talks about his career climb, various rides and his chances at Martinsville:
ERNIE IRVAN (No. 36 M&M's Pontiac Grand Prix): "I was watching RPM2Nite the other night and talking to Mark Martin and they said he was getting ready to make his 400th start and I said, 'Oh yeah? I wonder how many I've started?' You run so many you don't even think about it. The press ke eps track of all that stuff. It's nice to be able to say, 'Hey, I've done that.' The thing that we keep track of is the fact, yeah, it's my 300th start, so obviously I've lost a lot of races. That's how I really picture it."
WHEN YOU WERE IN D.K. ULRICH'S PONTIAC BACK IN 1988 AND '89, DID YOU FORESEE YOUR CAREER UNFOLDING LIKE IT HAS? "No, not at all. I was still living a dream, and I still am. Obviously, DK saw some of the things he wanted to get done and that's make races and be able to attract a sponsor. It doesn't matter if you believe in your self. It matters if somebody else does. If you have the money yourself, you wouldn't have a sponsor or anything. As a driver you've got to make an impression on corporate America and all the people involved. Obviously, you've got to believe in yourself, but that always won't take you a long ways."
TALK ABOUT THE PROGRESSION OF YOUR CAREER. "There were some good times with DK's stuff. Bristol is a track where I showed everyone, 'Hey, maybe if he has the right stuff he can drive a Winston Cup car.' I led the race here for DK and ended up blowing a tire.
Nobody expected one of DK's cars to run up front. That was one of the real turning points of my career, doing that with equipment that wasn't up to par. Today, everyone has roughly the same equipment, as good of equipment as you can have. That day, he had 50 to 60 percent of what everybody else had. It was definitely a turning point.
"Being able to get the ride with the 4 car. Tony Glover and I accomplished a lot over there. I won my very first race at Bristol. I won my very first pole at Bristol. A lot of good things have happened to me at Bristol.
People starting opening up their eyes to Ernie Irvan at Bristol in DK's car. It would have been really neat if my 300th start had come at Bristol.
We can't really plan all that stuff out. I really feel like I've accomplished a lot, but there's so much more I want to accomplish. I know there's nothing I'd more enjoy than running in the top-five every week and winning races. The sport has gotten tougher and tougher. I think our race team right now is right there on the verge of being able to do that. If we could fine tune a couple of races this year we could have a couple of top-fives and be in the top-five in points. You can't do that.
"I know winning the Daytona 500 with the 4 car was a turning point in my career. That established a lot for me as a driver. Probably the next turning point in my career was when I stood up in front of the Winston Cup drivers and apologized to them. If there is one turning point in your career that makes a difference, I think that really made a difference. Not because of what I said, but because of my attitude and what I changed about myself. I think that was probably the biggest turning point of my career."
WAS THAT YOUR OWN PERSONAL DECISION TO APOLOGIZE? "It was Dick Beaty and myself. I had to go to him and say, 'Dick, what about if I did this?' Dick said, 'I don't know, nobody's every done that before. I'd have to check and find out if you can do that.' Dick got back to me an hour later and said, 'That would be all right, but we don't think you have to do that.' I said, 'Yeah, I know Dick, but Ernie's got to do that.' I had lost all the respect from all the other competitors. Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip were really the guys that set me down and told me, 'It doesn't really matter how good a race car driver you are.' Darrell Waltrip said, 'You're as good a race car driver that has ever stepped into Winston Cup racing, but if you don't straighten up, you're going to get kicked out of Winston Cup racing, not from Winston Cup, but you're going to get kicked out because nobody is going to like you and nobody is going to associate with you.' Those are two of the biggest guys in the sport. Darrell is still the winningest active driver. Richard Petty has won the most. There's no doubt those guys knew what they were talking about. Darrell and Richard kept telling me, 'We're only talking to you about this for your own good.' That was a major turning point. It's not like they told me I needed to get up and apologize at the drivers meeting at Talladega. But I felt like I needed to do that."
YOU'VE TALKED OPENLY WITH TONY STEWART AND ANSWERED HIS QUESTIONS. ARE YOU TAKING THE SAME ROLE DARRELL AND RICHARD TOOK WITH YOU AT TIMES? "I do if they're open. I'm not going to knock on a young driver's door. But when somebody is getting started in the sport and they come to me and ask me for some of my advice, man, I open up. I tell them everything I feel like they need to know. I've been there and done that. I've been as low as you can get. I've been as high as you can get. I've been a lot in the middle. The path on the way up is really, really hard. The path on the way down is like falling from a tree. The climb back up to the middle is definitely slower, just to get back to the middle. It's a tough sport. I think I've had a good relationship with the press. Other people in the press will say, 'Ernie? You can't even talk to him.' I've had a lot of good relationships with people in the press. I've had a great relationship with Mike Mulhern. There are a lot of people like that. Some guys have a negative feeling toward me and I really hate that. That's one of the reasons I felt I had to stand up in front of all the Winston Cup drivers and tell them I've got to change and that I was sorry. If somebody doesn't like you, it doesn't really matter a lot if they just plain don't care for you. If they hate you I think that's a problem. There are probably people in the Winston Cup garage right now, where, yeah, I'm not their favorite person. But I don't think they say, 'Oh, I hate that guy.'
"The controversy I went through with switching from the 4 car to the 28 car was a turning point. Obviously, there were some bad feelings on that deal. It was a move I needed to make. I wanted to better my career. I thought like we were kind of stale over there at the 4 and I felt like it was something I had to do. When I won at Martinsville that was the first time the 28 had ever won at Martinsville.
"Lee Morse was the guy instrumental in me making the switch to the 28. I remember it like it was yesterday. We were at Pocono and Preston Miller (Ford employee) said, 'Would you be interested in driving the 28 car?' I told him I had a contract with the 4 car and really didn't think so. I've known Lee through the years and he works for me now. He was one of the guys I kind of knew in the Ford camp. I had never driven a Ford but I knew those people. Lee called me that night at Pocono. I was in bed on Saturday night. He asked me if I would be interested in driving the 28 car. I just listened to all the things he said. He talked for about 45 minutes. I told him I'd get back to him the first of the week. I couldn't make that decision right off the top of my head. I stood up for the next couple of hours talking about it with my wife. Kim really can look at the whole picture. She asked, 'If you weren't under contract, what would you think?'
It got to a point in the next couple of days where I talked to Mark Martin.
He had been offered that ride before, but he really likes driving for Roush. One of the things Ford really wanted to have happen was a rivalry with Dale Earnhardt and a Ford. They had had that with Davey Allison. The biggest deal I had to overcome about switching rides was that I wouldn't be there just to replace Davey Allison. Nobody could replace Davey Allison. That was something I was very nervous about. Davey and I had had our bad times and had had our good times. I felt if I did the switch I wasn't there to replace him. That was another major part of my career. Larry McReynolds was there as the crew chief and he's another major part of my career. He's so focused on what he's doing. He really taught me a lot."
WHAT ABOUT THE '94 SEASON WHEN YOU WERE A CLOSE SECOND IN POINTS TO EARNHARDT WHEN YOU SUFFERED THE CRASH AT MICHIGAN? "I don't if we would have won the championship or finished third or fifth. We were in the thick of it. Everyone wants to say, 'There was no doubt you were going to win it.' Look at the records and how many good finishes Earnhardt had to close that season. Then I think, 'Well, that sounds good anyway.' I know there's a lot of people in the Winston Cup garage that can't say they've had a shot to win the Winston Cup championship.
We had a real shot at it and then I got hurt. We were back and forth. I don't want to take anything away from Dale Earnhardt winning his seventh championship that year. How can you take that away from him? I was one of the guys giving him a race for it. Now with Jeff Gordon out here I don't know how he'll ever win his eighth championship."
YOU SEEMED TO BE COMFORTABLE IN THE LIMELIGHT THAT YEAR. "I really was. It was a lot of fun. I felt like I was handling in pretty good. I was more at ease than I ever had been. It was like every time we unloaded -- bam -- we were a top-five car. After I got hurt, I don't think a whole lot of people had faith that I was going to be able to drive a race car again. Obviously, Robert Yates did. I feel very grateful to him for that. He honored what he said he would do. I remember Robert Yates coming to my rehab and told me, 'No matter what, I'll have a race car for you when you're able to drive again.' I said, 'Robert, you don't have to do that.' I was telling him I wanted to quit. I wanted to quit because I felt like I was dragging the team down. He said, 'They day that you come back I want you driving my car because if you don't, I'm going to have to race against you and I don't want to have to do that again.' It brought tears to my eyes. I told him I'd do everything physically possible to be able to drive a race car again.
"That day at Wilkesboro (his first race back) was probably the biggest day of my career. Winning the Daytona 500 is obviously awesome and all the things that go with that. But that day at Wilkesboro, being able to sit in that race car and being able to drive that race car and finish sixth and lead laps, that was pretty decent. That was probably the biggest part of my career, being able to get back in Winston Cup racing."
TALK ABOUT YOUR WIN AT MARTINSVILLE. "I dominated the race. We had a great race car. The 28 had run fairly good up there, but Davey always had some problems. There's no doubt Mart insville is a tough race track. Being able to outrun Rusty Wallace there, he finished second. I think the next race at Martinsville Rusty won and I ran second. Being able to outrun Rusty Wallace there is tough. It's almost as tough as outrunning Rusty at Bristol for the pole. It's something that sticks in my mind as being just a great accomplishment. Everybody was saying, 'Anybody can win in the 28 car.' I proved it. Something that really sticks in my mind about that win is, and this wasn't a PR move or anything, but I just happened to have a T-shirt on that had 'In Memory of Davey Allison.' I wore that that day. That's the only day I've ever worn it and I wore it that day. I never wear a T-shirt. I just happened to wear a T-shirt that day. Davey always wore a T-shirt. Nobody came to me and said, "This would be a real good PR move.' I just happened to do it. It was really rewarding to get out of the car and have that T-shirt on. I really think the memory of Davey and what all he'd done for the 28 team was what enabled us to win that race. The team knew what Davey had at Martinsville. That really helped us win that race."
YOU WON A POLE AND FINISHED SIXTH AT MARTINSVLLE LAST YEAR. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT GOING BACK? "Our qualifying deal, I can't even use the excuse is it's just so tight. I'm basically two-and-three-quarters tenth off the pole at Bristol and use a provisional. Obviously, I have the same stuff Jeff Gordon has. I've got to get that extra two tenths out of it. We struggled all of the first half of last year on qualifying. Then we went to Indy and tested and we learned a lot of stuff. We went back to Michigan and sat on the pole. We went back to Indy and sat on the pole. We went to Martinsville sand sat on the pole. All of the stuff we learned started to pay dividends. From then on, we were decent and then I got hurt again at Talladega. Now I'm kind of like coming back again. Winston Cup drivers are on call instantly and you've got to be able to get the job done right now. Several tracks haven't changed, but they've changed in my mind a lot. I think that's a little of what we're fighting. That's something we've got to overcome again. We're going testing at Talladega and we're going to Richmond. I'm going to run a Busch car at Richmond and I'm going to run a truck at Martinsville. I've got a lot of stuff in the next three weeks that can hopefully turn our qualifying around a little bit."