Irrepressible. There's just no other way to describe the new Daytona 500 winner, Ernie Irvan.
He wasn't supposed to win it. According to most of the so-called experts, that honor was to go to Dale Earnhardt. Or maybe Davey Allison. Or possibly Kyle Petty or Darrell Waltrip.But Irvan? All he had going into Sunday's race at Daytona International Speedway was one Winston Cup victory, that on a short track at Bristol, Tenn., last August.
He did have a strong second-place finish - behind Earnhardt - in last Thursday's 125-mile qualifying race, and most of the 145,000 spectators at Daytona International Speedway figured the 32-year-old driver from Modesto, Calif., could do no better on Sunday.
Irvan tried all week to tell people he was a legitimate contender. Nobody was listening.
"It just proves people better listen to me next time," Irvan said with a laugh.
The stocky young man with a thatch of black hair and a thick black mustache gives the impression of enjoying life to the fullest. Since joining the top-notch Morgan-McClure racing team, he's shown signs of blossoming into a driving star.
He won three poles and that Bristol race for McClure last season, but Sunday's victory in stock-car racing's biggest event puts him in with the big boys. The Daytona victory that put $233,000 in his pocket came at the expense of Earnhardt, who Irvan said in the glow of victory was "an inspiration to me."
It was Earnhardt, whose luck in NASCAR's crown jewel has been nothing short of awful, who Irvan rocketed past to take the lead on the 194th of 200 laps.
Earnhardt, who finished fifth last year after dominating the race for 155 laps when his tire shredded one mile from the end, fell back into a side-by-side duel for second place with Davey Allison on Sunday.
With Irvan watching wide-eyed in his rearview mirror, Earnhardt slipped sideways, slammed into Allison and the two spun wildly off the track and out of contention.
The ensuing caution flag, the ninth of the day, lasted to the end of the race, giving Irvan an enjoyable ride to the checkered flag.
"I remember looking up and seeing them behind me and thinking, `They're going to get in line and run me down.' So I just tried to run as hard as I could hoping they wouldn't catch me.
"When I looked in my mirror and saw what was happening behind me, I thought, `This can't be true."'
It almost wasn't. Riding behind the pace car, Irvan took the white flag signifying the final lap and then saw the red fuel warning light on his dash begin to glow ominously.
"I went into turn one behind the pace car and I started running out of gas," Irvan said with a shake of his head. "I thought, `There's no way this can happen on the white flag lap in the biggest race in the world when I've got it won."'
Irvan moved his car down from the banked track onto the flat apron on the inside. That served to slosh his remaining fuel from the left side of the tank, where it had been collected by centrifugal force, back toward the pickup on the right side of the car.
"That must have worked because we were able to get to the end."
Sterling Marlin wound up second, followed by Joe Ruttman, Rick Mast and Earnhardt, who recovered from the late spin to finish the race. Pole-starter Allison wound up against a dirt bank and placed 15th.
Despite accidents that knocked 11 of the 44 starters out of the race and damaged the cars of several others, there were no injuries.