The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend for the running of the Overton’s 301, but before we look forward to Sunday’s race, we’ll take a step back in the past to the 1996 Jiffy Lube 300, a race that marked Ernie Irvan’s emotional return to victory lane.
After the loss of Davey Allison in 1993, Robert Yates Racing tapped Irvan to take over the No. 28 Ford, with the team scoring five wins between the end of 1993 and the first 20 races of 1994. Heading into Michigan in August of 1994, the team looked to be one of the teams to beat for the championship down the road when disaster struck during practice. Irvan struck the Turn 2 wall nearly head on at speeds upwards of 175 mph, causing multiple injuries, including a fractured skull, collapsed lungs, and nerve damage to his left eye. As a result of his injuries, Irvan was placed on life support and given a slim chance of survival at the time.
However, Irvan persevered and recovered from his injuries to return to the driver’s seat at North Wilkesboro in October of 1995, with an eye patch over his left eye being the only remnants of the vicious crash that nearly took his life.
The 1996 season got off to a rocky start for Irvan, with three finishes of 33rd or worse in the first five races of the year, but by the time New Hampshire rolled around in mid-July, the No. 28 team had gotten their feet under them, scoring a pole at Talladega and four top-10 finishes in the five races preceding the Jiffy Lube 300.
Ricky Craven would start the 300 lap race on the pole, while Irvan rolled off sixth to start the day.
Craven led the first lap of the race before Bobby Hamilton took over at lap two and held the point for the next 28 laps. Hamilton would lose the lead to Geoff Bodine on lap 30, before the two swapped positions again at lap 38 and lap 51.
On lap 57, Irvan found himself in the lead for the first of four times that he would lead throughout the day.
As the race continued to play out, several contenders found themselves at the front of the field for multiple laps, including Robert Pressley, Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Dale Earnhardt, and Johnny Benson.
With the laps winding down, the leaders all made their final pit stops under green flag conditions and by the time everything cycled out, it was Irvan that found himself in command of the race with 23 laps to go, holding a lead of more than five seconds over his Robert Yates Racing teammate Dale Jarrett.
Though Jarrett had rebounded from a spin early in the race up to second, he was no match for Irvan, who was relentless over the final laps of the event, crossing the line in first with Jarrett still over five seconds back as the runner-up finisher.
Ricky Rudd, Jeff Burton, and Robert Pressley would round out the top-five.
“I don’t know what to even really say,” said Irvan’s crew chief Larry McReynolds. “This is a long way from that hospital in Michigan back in August of ’94. We knew we had it. What a great day for Robert Yates Racing, 1-2, and man, how about Ernie? Is he not smooth? Just a great car all day. I think we’re going to see a Polish Victory Lap. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen one of those. The guys in the pits did a great job. Track position was everything.”
“I did like Larry wanted to, a Polish Victory Lap,” said Irvan after emerging from his car in Victory Lane. “That’s in honor of Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison. It’s just great what we’ve been able to do. It’s not just me; it’s the whole race team. I just stayed focused on what I had to do and didn’t think about winning until the last lap.”
“The team’s worked really hard. We struggled at the beginning of the year. Some my fault, some theirs. It’s just part of it, you know? It’s amazing that we made it back to Victory Lane. Daytona was great, but this is what it’s all about in Winston Cup.”