DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Ernie Irvan is about 5 feet 6. He has bushy eyebrows, a wide mustache and an easy smile.
He doesn't look like a bad guy.
But more often than not, that is the role he has put himself in. He has won the Daytona 500, but he is most remembered for the crashes he has caused.
Swervin' Irvan. It is a name he has been trying to live down for years.
Tomorrow, when the 36th annual Daytona 500 roars off the starting line, his Havoline Ford will be in the second row, behind pole sitter Loy Allen Jr.
"I feel like I'm at the height of my career and established," said Irvan, 35. "I feel I'm one of the drivers owners look to to make their team good. But this is a real cutthroat sport. And you can go up and down -- and down a lot quicker than you can go up.
"It's taken me a lot of years to get over all the situations I've had."
In 1990, Irvan caused one crash that left Kyle Petty with a broken leg, and another that virtually ended the career of Neil Bonnett, who emerged from the wreck at Talladega, Ala., with serious head injuries. In an unrelated accident, Bonnett was killed Feb. 11 during a practice run at Daytona.
The next season, Irvan got up in front of his fellow competitors during a pre-race drivers' meeting and apologized for the havoc he was causing.
Since then Irvan has continued to wreck the best -- Bill Elliott and Davey Allison among them -- from time to time.
Most of the drivers here have had a harsh word for Irvan through his stormy, six-year Winston Cup career. This week, though, most are following Dale Earnhardt's lead.
"I'd really rather not talk about Ernie Irvan," Earnhardt said.
Many see him as an over-aggressive driver who tries to make the kinds of moves Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace make, but who lacks the finesse to pull them off.
Others see him as every bit as talented as any other driver out there.
He has won nine times in 176 Winston Cup starts and last year hit his all-time, money-earning high -- $1,400,468.
When Davey Allison was killed in a helicopter crash last July, car owner Robert Yates chose Irvan to drive Allison's car.
It was a move that angered Allison fans, since it was Irvan who had wrecked Allison in Atlanta the previous November and seemingly cost him the 1992 Winston Cup championship.
"I think I'm respected," Irvan said. "I've gained a lot of respect, because even in all those situations I've went through, I kept my head high. I still raced hard. I won some races and did well and everything kept adding up.
"A lot of the people who were real down on me, are real high on me."
One of those down on him a number of years ago was Yates, the man he now drives for.
, "When Ernie was on the other
side of the fence, I loved to hate him," said Yates. "I thought one time, he banked off us at Martinsville. He drove hard and close. But after a while, after watching him, I got more comfortable with my car racing against him.
"And since he started driving for us last year, I've discovered he has talent I didn't realize he has. He'll run up against somebody, but not over them.
"But his weakness is patience. He told us, 'You all may have to pull the reins in on me.' And we've done that."
Patience is often lacking in men who like to drive fast. When Irvan's car is sitting fifth in line, it doesn't stay there long.
"He has this aggressiveness," said Yates. "He can't wait to get to the front. If I'm choosing up sides to go racing, he's the guy we'd choose -- and did choose.
0$ "If he's rubbing on other people
now, it's not because he's swervin', it's because the car isn't set up right. And, in that case, we keep working on it to get it right."
Irvan has no doubt there are still people in the garage area and in the grandstands who "deep down still don't like some of the situations I've been in."
But if he is aware of his critics, he is even more aware of his weakness.
"I've got a little saying," Irvan said. "I always say patience is the hardest thing to learn and the easiest to forget."
But at Daytona, in the biggest race of the year, there are a lot of issues. And with the restrictor plates limiting each car's power, it makes patience even harder for Irvan.
"Definitely," he said. "When you're running along fifth or sixth here, you're lifting off the throttle a lot. You're having to drag the brake, and you know the guys two or three cars in front of you are running wide open going as fast as they can.
"You talk about having to really control your patience. You could run fifth all day and it's the last lap that counts. But, to me, it's like taking someone and don't let him eat for a week and then dangle a piece of steak in front of him."
L And then he laughs, shrugs his shoulders and looks sheepish.
"I normally go to the bottom and try to go to front," he said. "I don't like to lift my foot off the gas."
Site: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.
Time: 12:15 p.m. tomorrow
TV: Channels 11, 9
Pole-sitter: Loy Allen Jr., a rookie
Defending champ: Dale Jarrett, starts 41st
Favorite: Dale Earnhardt, starts second
In the running: Ernie Irvan, Sterling Marlin, Rusty Wallace
Long shot: John Andretti
Today's event: Goody's 300 Busch series race, 12:30 p.m.