Patch Job by Irvan a Success : Motor racing: He finishes sixth, on same lap as winner Martin, despite having eye covered in Winston Cup return.


The way Ernie Irvan drove Sunday, maybe one eye is all he needs.

Out of action for 13 months and 37 races after a near-fatal accident--and wearing a black patch over his left eye--Irvan drove 400 exhausting laps in his return to Winston Cup stock car racing to finish sixth in the Tyson Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

He was one of seven drivers on the same lap as winner Mark Martin at the finish of the two-hour 25-minute race, and was one of 13 drivers who led the 250-mile race around the five-eighths mile banked oval. Remarkably, all 36 starters were running at the end.

Earlier in the week, Irvan was joking around when someone asked him how he thought other drivers might feel about racing door-handle-to-door-handle with a one-eyed driver.

"Oh, they'd probably say, 'The way we look at it is that Ernie Irvan can probably drive better than 90 percent of them with one eye anyway.' "

And that's exactly what he did as a record crowd estimated at 60,000 roared its approval from the moment he and his No. 88 Ford moved onto the track on a picture-perfect North Carolina day.

"When I saw the fans standing and cheering [on the pace lap], I almost wished I could have been standing with them watching and listening," Irvan said.

Irvan was given no better than a 10% chance to live after hitting the wall at about 170 m.p.h. on Aug. 20, 1994, while testing tires at Michigan International Speedway. He was unconscious for seven days, but made a remarkable recovery marred only by a left eye that wouldn't focus properly.

Determined to come back to the sport in which he was one of its strongest competitors, Irvan received permission from NASCAR to drive with an eye patch.

"I think we answered a lot of questions today," he said. "I had a ball the whole time. It was just a matter of getting accustomed to doing it with one eye.

"Basically, I thought it was pretty much like it was before. Obviously it was a little bit different. I had to rely on my spotter a little more than I normally did. I normally had the spotter just tell me when there was a wreck.

"Now, I'm having to rely on him to watch the left rear. It's just something I'm going to have to get more used to, but we worked well together today."

Irvan's spotter is Terry Throneburg, a crewman who began spotting for the late Davey Allison in 1992 and has been with Robert Yates' team ever since. He spotted for Dale Jarrett, who replaced the injured Irvan as the team driver last year, but when Irvan returned, Throneburg switched back.

Every driver has a spotter, who sits high in the grandstand where he can survey the entire race and radio information to his driver.

Martin, who averaged 102.998 m.p.h., battled Irvan early in the race.

"I'm real proud of what Ernie did today," the winner said. "I thought he'd pass me there one time when we were running one-two. I was going to move over and let him go, so later on I'd be able to say, 'Ernie passed me while he was hurt.' But I decided I'd make him earn it and danged if he didn't. He proved he's well and deserves to be back."

Rusty Wallace, who finished second, echoed what appeared to be the feelings of all the drivers: "It was delightful to see him up front, leading for a while. I know he had to be excited. I thought he did a great job. I was proud for him."

Irvan led for 31 laps midway in the race. Only Martin (126), teammate Jarrett (108) and fifth-place finisher Ricky Rudd (58) led more.

Irvan was asked if he felt any added nervousness after being sidelined for such a long time.

"I kept looking for some, but I didn't see any butterflies," he said. "It was a pretty emotional time when I took the green flag. You know, for a time there we didn't know if we'd ever come back racing. We always thought we would, but we didn't know for sure."

Did he ever think perhaps he was pushing his luck to race with one eye?

"Heck, I was pushing my luck at Michigan when I was running to get prepared for that race," he said. "My whole life has been pushing my luck."

To watch Irvan walk through the garage area, you would never know he has double vision. He wears glasses with a prescription lens on the left side that makes it easy for him to focus, but it is not strong enough for use while racing.

When he first started wearing the patch earlier in the year, he wore it all the time, almost as a badge of courage, but recently he has become self-conscious about it. Not until he is buckled in his race car, with his helmet on, does he reach under his visor and slip the patch down from his forehead.

Only his wife, Kim, and their two-year-old daughter, Jordan, see him with the patch when they give him a last-minute kiss.

Kim has strongly supported his return to racing, even after watching him lay unconscious for a week after his crash.

"Ernie was a racer when I met him, so I've always known the danger involved." she said. "I wouldn't think of trying to discourage his coming back. He's worked so hard, harder than anyone knows except probably me and his doctors, he deserves every chance he can get."

Irvan credits his family, along with his faith in God, with his remarkable recovery.

"I've told the story a hundred times, but I never tire of it, how Kim handed me one of Jordan's shoes before I actually had any movement out of my right arm in the hospital," he said. "I held on to it for two days with my right hand."

Irvan will probably skip next week's Winston Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and make his next start Oct. 15 in a SuperTruck race at Mesa Marin Speedway in Bakersfield.

Jeff Gordon finished third and Dale Earnhardt ninth, enabling Gordon to pick up 27 points on the defending champion. With only four races remaining, Gordon has a 302-point lead.

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