"Davey wouldn't give me any room at all," said Earnhardt. "He was trying to run door-to-door with me, right down against me."
Not surprisingly, Allison had a different view of the accident. "All I know is I got hit," he said. "I passed Earnhardt clean on the outside, and I got hit. I ain't happy. I had a shot to win the race. I ain't scared of nobody. I'll say all my stuff on the racetrack by beating them, and I'm going to beat him more than once this year."
Allison wound up 15th, after being towed in. Petty, who took the hardest hit, at one point going airborne, did not finish but was credited with 16th. Earnhardt was able to restart his crunched car and chug into fifth place.
Because of the crash, the last three laps were run under the yellow caution flag, with passing not allowed. Nonetheless, Irvan still had several nerve-racking moments. As he crept around the 2.5-mile circuit behind the pace car on the final lap, the red light on his dashboard blinked on. He was almost out of fuel. His car began to sputter. Sterling Marlin, who had slipped ahead of Ruttman during the backstraight melee, could see that Irvan was in trouble. Said Marlin, "I heard his car sputter, and I was going, 'C'mon, quit, quit, quit.' "
However, Irvan, whose nickname is Swervin', did just that to get whatever gas remained in his tank sloshing toward the fuel pickup. The Chevy V-8 inhaled enough fumes for him to cross the finish line. Irvan won his first Daytona 500 at the tortoiselike average speed—25 laps had been run under the yellow flag—of 148.148 mph.
Irvan may be a Californian, but he could have been raised on grits and redeye gravy. He grew up in Salinas, an earthy hotbed of cowboys and farm workers, and as a kid he was put to work in his father's wrecking yard. His dad, Vic, raced stock cars for fun, and young Ernie followed him at full throttle. "I was one of those kids who, the first time he gets a bicycle, tries to ride it down the hill with no hands," says Ernie.
He took up go-kart racing and, he says, "ran over plenty of helmets from driving over the top of other karts." When Ernie was 16, Vic helped him build his own stock car, but after a couple of years they went separate ways, at least on race nights. Vic headed for the paved tracks, while Ernie raced mostly on dirt, with the help of his mother, Jo, who was his pit crew.
In 1984, Ernie went to North Carolina to test himself on the give-no-quarter tracks of the Southeast. In 1988, with the help of Earnhardt, Irvan landed a Winston Cup ride and finished second in the Rookie of the Year standings. Early in the 1990 season Irvan got a call from the Morgan-McClure team, which offered him its driver's seat. Ten days later he finished third at Atlanta, and in August he won his first Winston Cup race, the Busch 500 at Bristol, Tenn.
Irvan's climb to stock car racing's biggest league was meteoric by NASCAR standards, but it wasn't the result of smooth driving. Irvan's racing style is simple: Run 'em down or run 'em over. He doesn't mind his Swervin' Irvan nickname. "It beats Bonehead, which they gave me before that," Irvan says. "I used to get blamed for every crash. I'd get lectures by officials in the NASCAR truck every week, and most of the time they were right."
Such enthusiasm is the sign of a budding star—as long as the crashes are accompanied by occasional high finishes. Then, as the races and experience add up, the wrecks should diminish and the successes increase. No less an authority than the legendary Junior Johnson has had his eye on Irvan for some time. Five days before the 500, Johnson was asked if he knew of any young drivers who might be capable of filling Earnhardt's seat. "Ernie Irvan," replied Johnson. "It's always a gamble to put a kid who's knocking the wall down every week in the driver's scat, but if you can calm him down and wait him out, and he's the right kid, it can pay off many times over."