First-time Hall of Fame candidate Ray Evernham reflects on legacy of ‘crew chief tree’

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Just based on his record in NASCAR, Ray Evernham could become the fifth first-ballot inductee for the NASCAR Hall of Fame since the inaugural class.

When the Hall of Fame voting committee meets Wednesday afternoon in Charlotte to elect the seventh five-man class, they will be considering the career of the greatest crew chief of all time, according to a 2006 poll of the news media. Overseeing Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet from 1993-99, Evernham’s team compiled three championships, 47 victories and 30 pole positions in 213 starts.

But the case for Evernham’s candidacy is as much about his statistics as the springboard he created.

Much like the vaunted NFL coaching tree of football legend Bill Walsh, Evernham, 57, helped plant roots that branch throughout NASCAR more than 15 years after he retired as a crew chief.

The past two Sprint Cup championships were won by crew chiefs mentored by Evernham. Long before guiding Jimmie Johnson to six championships, Chad Knaus was a crew member of the No. 24 team. Rodney Childers, who led Kevin Harvick to his first title in NASCAR’s premier series last year, was given his start as a crew chief with Scott Riggs a decade ago at Evernham Motorsports.

Other past and current crew chiefs such as Steve Letarte, Tommy Baldwin Jr., Mike Ford, Kenny Francis, Tony Gibson, Keith Rodden and Slugger Labbe also worked for Evernham, who just wanted to return the favor after receiving tutelage from many of the sport’s biggest names.

“A lot of people took me under their wing,” Evernham told NBC Sports. “Randy Dorton (the late Hendrick engine builder) was very, very good to me, and obviously Mr. Hendrick himself. So you try and become part of that and share that knowledge and information. I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of guys like me who are just so passionate about the cars and the racing that they can’t get enough of it.

“I can’t sit here and go, ‘Oh yeah, I had a plan of creating this tree.’ I was just trying to pay back some of what people were good enough to teach me. I’ve been really, really fortunate to be around some really great racers. I really feel a responsibility to pay that stuff forward; that knowledge that’s been handed to us. They wanted to see me do good because I really loved racing. That’s where I’m at with my guys. You help people who really love the sport.”

Evernham’s education started as a 14-year-old wrenching on cars at short tracks around New Jersey and continued when he worked on the prototype of the Camaro used in the 1984 IROC Series. He lived for a month at the Asheville, N.C., home of NASCAR team owner and car builder Banjo Matthews, who introduced Evernham to Hall of Fame driver and car owner Junior Johnson and mechanic Herb Nab. Evernham also worked with crew chiefs Smokey Yunick, Harry Hyde and Waddell Wilson.

Hall of Famer Leonard Wood imparted much wisdom to Evernham, who said many of the lessons were common sense.

“You’ve got to understand how something works, then you’ve really got to understand you don’t skip the basics,” he said. “From Banjo and Leonard Wood, I’ve learned from them like I’d learn football from (Vince) Lombardi. You’ve got to do blocking and tackling first before you can run the trick plays. I learned that blocking and tackling from those guys. The basic foundation of how a NASCAR-type race car works and what affects what. The whole theory of how to run a race isn’t just about a fast car.”

In assembling his teams both as a crew chief and owner (his cars scored 13 victories in eight seasons after he spearheaded Dodge’s 2001 re-entry into NASCAR), Evernham sought employees who were cut from the same mold. Many of the initial employees for Gordon’s No. 24 team came from other forms of racing or auto dealership jobs because Evernham preferred intangibles over NASCAR experience.

“There are people who just want to do a job and do it well, and that’s OK, but there are people who do the job, do it well and look to take on more,” he said. “Chad slept in his car. You find someone who puts in that extra (effort), and they put in that drive consistently. They’re the people you want. A lot of people have the desire, but they won’t make the commitment. You make a commitment, and that means you’re sacrificing many other things in your life. You couple that with a person who has an ability to learn, you can do anything with them.”

The most famous graduate of Evernham’s system is Knaus, who also might be the closest facsimile having drawn the nickname “Little Ray” while at Hendrick.

“I think Chad took the things that I showed him and other people showed him and made it better,” Evernham said. “Chad and I have strong personalities. He crew chiefs like I would crew chief. If I had a much older son, would it be Chad? Probably. Would I be proud if I was Chad’s father? Unbelievably proud. I’m proud to know him because he’s dedicated and committed just about every step of his life and career from the time he was 16 to get where he is. He told me he wanted to do it, and he has stayed that course. I’m super proud of him.

“His management style is a lot like mine. He cares about his people, but he’s not afraid to work them hard. In the end, it’s about winning.  Who says you can’t win them all? Somebody’s going to win them all. Might as well be you. Some people would say that’s an unrealistic thought process, but literally why can’t you?”

At Hendrick, Knaus worked side by side for several seasons with Letarte, who was a teenager in high school when he began working with Evernham on the No. 24. He became Gordon’s crew chief in 2005 and won 10 races with the four-time series champion before moving to Dale Earnhardt Jr. He guided NASCAR’s most popular driver to five wins (four last year) before becoming an NBC Sports analyst this season.

“Steve was a hard-working guy but with a different mentality and thought process than Chad,” Evernham said. “He had a different management style and was real smooth. But even as a kid, Steve was just brilliant with a high level of intelligence. He could figure things out and was a really, really good problem-solver. Probably the best tire guy I ever had because he was so good with numbers.

“He had the ability to keep people happy in the shop. Steve would be a great politician. But in the back of his mind, he could be running the numbers to make the car go faster, too. Steve is one of those guys that you think, ‘Man, how is that guy doing all this?’ because he gets a lot done without breaking a sweat.”

Having returned last year as a member of Hendrick Motorsports’ executive management team, Evernham takes pride in the team still using some of the processes and procedures he developed, as well as former No. 24 crew members Brian Whitesell and Michael Landis in key management roles.

Many executives with other teams (such as Sammy Johns at Richard Petty Motorsports, Eric Warren at Richard Childress Racing and Mark McArdle at Roush Fenway Racing) also have worked under Evernham.

“Those guys probably taught me as much as I taught them, and it’s neat to see them get a shot at being their own person rather than being under me,” he said.

“The world and the sport changes so fast anymore all I can do is look at these guys and talk about my past experiences. What’s really cool now is to say I’ve sat in all those chairs. I’ve been a crew chief. I’ve been a chief mechanic. I’ve been an owner, a fabricator, and I’ve had a little experience as a track owner. The older you get, you look back and it means a lot more to think ‘OK, man, I think I helped with a little bit of that.’ ”

Evernham, whose wife, Erin, is expecting a girl July 21, has no plans to return atop the pit box but does have an idea of the challenges that crew chiefs will face in the future.

“The biggest thing different now is they’ve got so much more information,” he said. “They’re gathering so much more information faster than they can’t handle it. I think they’re going to have to have more people, processes and software to go through the data so they can make better decisions. Ultimately, the crew chiefs still have to be the guys on the box leading all that. You’re not the guy that’s putting springs in and out, but you are going to be the voice on the radio.

“The main core still is understanding the car. It’s still going to respond to the laws of physics. It’s horsepower, aero, handling. You’ve got a driver, a team, a pit crew and strategy to manage. You just need more people to help you process that information faster to make better decisions, and the tools today are so much more exact. All the little things that are measured today are making a difference. So the amount of data that comes at you in the time, I think the crew chiefs are going to have to figure out ways to process that data faster to get an advantage.”

 

Many of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s most memorable career moments

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Trying to condense 18 seasons, 603 starts, 26 wins, 149 top-fives, 253 top 10s and 13 poles into one highlight reel is a challenge, indeed.

In light of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement today that he’ll retire at the end of this season as a NASCAR Cup driver, let’s take a walk down memory lane of some of Junior’s most memorable races and accomplishments.

2000 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned his first career Cup victory at the same site he earned his first Xfinity win a few years earlier: Texas Motor Speedway. He would earn his second career win several weeks later at Richmond.

2000 – Junior earns his first – and only one to date – NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

2001 – In an emotional celebration, Junior wins the Pepsi 400 at Daytona and dedicates his third career Cup win to his father, who was killed less than five months earlier in the season-opening Daytona 500.

2001 – In the first NASCAR race following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins an emotional and stirring MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 at Dover International Speedway.

2001 to 2003 – Junior wins four straight Cup races at Talladega Superspeedway, which would become his most prolific track with six overall wins to date there. Here’s his four wins in a row at ‘Dega:

2001 – EA Sports 500 — Junior wins the race and earns a $1 million Winston No Bull 5 bonus.

2002 Aaron’s 400

2002 EA Sports 500 — and the final $1 million Winston No Bull 5 bonus

2003 Aaron’s 499

2004 – Junior earns his first of what would be two Daytona 500 victories. “I’m a Daytona 500 champion. I can’t believe it,” Junior said in Victory Lane.

2010 – Earnhardt wins the Subway Jalapeno 250 Xfinity Series race at Daytona. This race was all the more memorable because Junior drove a retro-looking No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing that paid homage to his late father, who was sponsored by Wrangler.

2014 – Earnhardt earns what would prove to be the second and final Daytona 500 win of his career, with now-NBC NASCAR analyst Steve Letarte as his crew chief.

2015 – Earnhardt records his most recent Cup win in the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix Raceway (ceremonially renamed Jeff Gordon Raceway for this race). It was also Earnhardt’s third career win at Phoenix.

 

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Who are the candidates to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88? Here’s a short list

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With Tuesday’s news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving NASCAR after the 2017 season, Hendrick Motorsports would seem to have multiple internal and external candidates to fill the ride.

Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet would be the top-tier opening for 2018. The car is prepared in the same building as the No. 48 of seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson and is a teammate to Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne. Since taking over the No. 88 in 2008, Earnhardt has made the playoffs in six of nine seasons, notched nine victories and finished top 10 in points three times (he might have again in 2012 if he hadn’t been sidelined for two races by a concussion).

Some of the decision assuredly will depend on sponsorship (in a statement, Nationwide said it fully supported Earnhardt’s decision and would continue its relationship with the 14-time most popular driver beyond 2017), but here are a few names to consider — starting with two already in the Hendrick fold:

William Byron: Signed to a developmental deal with the team last August, he unquestionably is the future of Hendrick Motorsports along with Elliott.

Byron, 19, showed prodigious talent as a rookie in the Camping World Truck Series with a circuit-leading seven victories (he was robbed of the championship because of a mechanical failure while dominating Phoenix). He is only seven races into his Xfinity career but is a solid second in points with five top 10s and two top fives.

There will be questions about whether it would be rushing too much to promote him to Cup in his third full season in a NASCAR national series, but if he’s the eventual solution, why wait to promote him? Kyle Larson was moved into Cup after only a full season of Xfinity, and his development into the 2017 points leader has proved the pitfalls that surrounded Joey Logano’s entry into Cup as an inexperienced teenager can be avoided.

Alex Bowman: He filled in admirably for an injured Earnhardt with three top 10s in 10 races last year (qualifying on pole position at Phoenix and leading 194 laps). Bowman, who turned 24 today, also ran full time in Cup from 2014-15, so he has nearly 81 starts in the premier series as well as five top fives in 50 Xfinity starts.

Still under contract to Hendrick, his yeoman work on the driving simulator has drawn praise from the organization and its drivers.

But the Tuscon, Ariz., native still doesn’t have a resume that is eye-catching as Byron’s, and his upside might be a more difficult sell to sponsors.

Carl Edwards: Since stepping away from NASCAR in a stunning announcement three months ago, Edwards steadfastly has maintained he isn’t retired. While visiting Atlanta Motor Speedway to help rookie replacement Daniel Suarez with his former No. 19 Toyota, Edwards brought his helmet and firesuit just in case.

He seems open to driving in Cup again, though he is remaining coy about it. Asked by NBC Sports if the No. 88 was an opportunity he would consider, Edwards jokingly replied, “You may have it mixed up. I’m recruiting Dale to drive a tractor!” (He also added he was happy for Earnhardt, and that it would be a great ride for someone.)

With 28 victories in the Cup series and a megawatt smile and sponsor appeal, Edwards’ name figures to come up whenever there is an opening, even if he seems to be enjoying life on his farm in Columbia, Mo. He also was courted by Hendrick about a decade ago (which Jeff Gordon confirmed in 2011 when Edwards was in the midst of re-upping for the last time with Roush Fenway Racing).

–Any other qualified veteran: Hendrick could decide Byron isn’t ready for the No. 88 yet next season but is the answer for 2019.

Would it make sense to consider putting NBCSN analyst Greg Biffle (who has indicated he still would like to race) or another driver with winning credentials (such as David Ragan or Regan Smith, who has Hendrick and JRM ties) in the No. 88 to keep the seat warm for Byron in 2019?

Given that Hendrick waited a year for Kahne to join its ranks, and Stewart-Haas Racing did the same with Clint Bowyer, it isn’t an implausible scenario.

A look at Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s most popular tweets

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s NASCAR racing career has been long and memorable and will end after the 2017 season.

But his social media career has been short, insightful, news breaking and often times hilarious.

After years of dragging his feet, the 14-time most popular driver joined Twitter on Feb. 24, 2014 after his second Daytona 500 and NASCAR hasn’t been the same.

In hindsight, Earnhardt’s social media use has been a captivating look at the twilight of his racing career, which began with arguably one of the biggest wins of his career.

Here’s a look at Earnhardt’s eight most retweeted tweets.

  1. Feb. 24, 2014 – The morning after his second Daytona 500 win, Earnhardt poses with a statue of his late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., that is outside Daytona International Speedway. It’s been retweeted 26,629 times.

2.  Feb. 24, 2014 – Just after 2:30 a.m. ET, the NASCAR and Twitter world changed forever when Earnhardt posted his first surprise tweet from Victory Lane after winning his second Daytona 500. It was Earnhardt’s first Cup win since the June 2012 Michigan race and only his second Cup win since 2008. It’s been retweeted 20,026 times.

3. Feb. 18, 2015 – Fourteen years after his father was killed in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt acknowledged the anniversary. It has been retweeted 10,788 times.

4. January 19, 2017 – Earnhardt is an unabashed fan of sports outside of NASCAR, including of the NFL’s Washington Redskins and the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. Earlier this year, Earnhardt couldn’t attend a Hornets’ home game. So he decided to give his tickets to one lucky winner. 7,925 people retweeted his post hoping to win.

5. Feb. 25, 2017 – The day before what would turn out to be his last Daytona 500 start, Earnhardt shared a video that had been posted by the official NASCAR Twitter account. Backed with the song “My Old Man” by the Zac Brown Band, the video is a fond remembrance of his relationship with his father. Roughly 7,600 people shared his sentiment.

6. Dec. 11, 2014 – This tweet takes a little bit more of an explanation. Ten months after joining Twitter, Earnhardt tagged rapper J. Cole in a tweet, mentioning he was “funny” with a hashtag #ShitChangedMyLifeBro. The hashtag is a reference to one of J. Cole’s songs, “Note to Self.” Cole referenced Earnhardt in the song after he saw in an ESPN interview that Earnhardt listened to one of his songs before races. The Twitter interaction led to 7,601 retweets and an ESPN: The Magazine cover story.

7. April 29, 2014 – Two months after joining Twitter, Earnhardt very simply wished his late father a happy birthday. It was retweeted more than 6,800 times.

8. Aug. 10, 2014 – Few personally know the tragedy associated with auto racing more than Dale Earnhardt Jr. On Aug. 9, 2014, sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. was killed when a sprint car driven by Tony Stewart struck the 20-year-old. Ward had approached the racing lane on foot following a crash at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York. The following morning Earnhardt tweeted his condolences to Ward’s family. It was shared 5,579 times.

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Richmond International Raceway

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NASCAR makes its first visit of the year to Richmond International Raceway this weekend as the Cup and Xfinity Series compete on the .75-mile track.

Cup teams will hold the Toyota Owners 400 while Xfinity teams gear up for the ToyotaCares 250.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for both races.

Cup Series – Toyota Owners 400

There are 38 cars on the entry list for the Cup race.

Last year, Carl Edwards won this race with a bump-and-run on teammate Kyle Busch on the final turn. Busch had led 78 laps in the race before Edwards, who led 151 laps, powered his way to the victory.

Denny Hamlin won the fall race from the pole after leading 189 laps.

Click here for the full entry list.

Xfinity Series – ToyotaCares 250

Five Cup drivers are among the 42 cars entered into the race, including: Ty Dillon, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson.

The race is the third Dash 4 Cash race of the year, meaning Cup drivers with five years or more experience are not eligible to compete in the race.

Last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won this race after leading 128 of 149 laps. Kyle Busch won the fall race after leading 197 of 250 laps.

Click here for the entry list.