Kenny Irwin, Jr: What Might Have Been
Greetings, readers, and Happy New Year. Join me now for my first article of the year and my fourth entry in my series What Might Have Been. This week, I will once again focus on a driver who was struck by tragedy and left us far too soon: Kenny Irwin, Jr.
Kenny grew up in Indianapolis and began racing by the time he entered the second grade. In the 1990s, he moved up to USAC where his success caused him to be compared with Jeff Gordon. In 1996, Kenny moved to NASCAR where he made his truck series debut and notched two wins in the series in 1997. In 1998, Kenny earned a full-time Cup series ride with Robert Yates where he won the Rookie of the Year award despite finishing 28th in points. A nine position points improvement to 19th in 1999 wasn't enough to keep Kenny with Robert Yates, and Kenny signed with Felix Sabates for the 2000 season. Halfway through the season, Chip Ganassi purchased a majority of the team and believed Kenny's future looked bright. However, it never came to be as Kenny was killed during practice for a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 7, 2000, leaving us all to wonder what might have been.
When debating what the future might have held for Kenny, it's easy to be dismissive since he had zero wins in the Cup series. However, when we dig deeper, it's easy to see that the talent was there. In a Cup career that spanned only 2 1/2 full seasons, Kenny had three poles and twelve top ten finishes. This is more impressive considering that before Kenny's truck series debut in 1996, he had no experience in stock cars. However, as I mentioned earlier, he had success in USAC which culminated with the 1996 National Midget Series Championship.
Another interesting note when discussing what the future may have held for Kenny is his final team, Chip Ganassi Racing. Remember, this is a team that challenged for the 2002 Sprint Cup Series Championship before Sterling Marlin succumbed to injury, so the infrastructure was in place. It's difficult to say if Kenny would have ever challenged for a championship, but I think it would be easy to say that he would have eventually found Victory Lane and been able to challenge for a win or two every season along with other former USAC drivers like Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne. Unfortunately, he left us too soon and forced us all to wonder what might have been.