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.”

 

My Home Tracks: New Mexico’s the Land of Enchantment and home of Cardinal Speedway

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The state of New Mexico is known more for IndyCar racing, with the Unser family being the state’s favorite sons.

Al Unser won four Indianapolis 500s, brother Bobby three and Al’s son Al Jr. a two-time winner (this weekend’s 500 marks the 25th anniversary of Little Al’s second 500 triumph).

But there’s a strong grassroots racing scene in the Land of Enchantment, particularly in the far southeast corner of the state at Cardinal Speedway, a half-mile dirt track in the little town of Eunice.

NASCAR America continues its My Home Track series of 50 states in 50 shows.

Wednesday, we visit New York state.

2018 NASCAR schedule changes: EVP Steve O’Donnell breaks it down (video)

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On Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell joined us to discuss the NASCAR Cup schedule changes in 2018, including running a road race at Charlotte and having Indianapolis be the final race before the playoffs.

“I’m real excited about these changes,” said O’Donnell, who cited unprecedented cooperation between NASCAR, its teams, drivers and sponsors to reach agreement on the schedule changes.

Among the key changes: Las Vegas will kick off the 10-race playoffs in 2018 (Chicagoland Speedway, which will have hosted the last seven playoff openers, will return to its more traditional race date in early July/late June and serve as a run-up to the Coke Zero 400 in Daytona.

Several other changes include:

  • The fall playoff race at Charlotte will move up a couple weeks in the schedule and also incorporate competition on both the infield road course and part of the speedway itself.
  • After 14 years as the deciding race to qualify for the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Richmond International Raceway will now become the second race of the playoffs.
  • Indianapolis Motor Speedway will see it’s Brickyard 400 go from late July to become the final qualifying race for the playoffs in early September.

Catch up on all the changes in the above video.

Tony Stewart pulled over by state trooper, but it’s not for speeding

Photo courtesy Damein Cunningham Twitter account
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Retired NASCAR Cup driver and team co-owner Tony Stewart was stopped by an Illinois State Trooper over the weekend near DeKalb, Ill., about 90 minutes west of Chicago.

But before you think Stewart was stopped for speeding by Trooper Damein Cunningham, he wasn’t.

Rather, Cunningham pulled Stewart over for improper lane usage, although exactly what the infraction was is unclear.

After getting a verbal warning, Stewart gladly posed with Cunningham for a selfie, which the trooper promptly tweeted out.

“Just pulled over NASCAR LEGEND Tony Stewart on I-88 in DeKalb, IL, what you think I got him for? #NASCAR #ISP”

But according to the Chicago Tribune, Cunningham’s bosses apparently didn’t have a sense of humor about the incident or realize the good PR it meant for the Illinois State Police.

That, or they’re not Stewart or NASCAR fans. They ordered Cunningham to delete the tweet, which he did.

It’s unclear what Stewart, who was stopped on his 46th birthday, was doing in the Land of Lincoln.

But his luck went from bad to worse a few hours later. According to USA Today, Stewart and others were stuck in an elevator in a Madison, Wisconsin hotel for about 20 minutes before being rescued by firefighters.

We can just imagine what the elevator riders talked about while trapped.

How much do you want to bet Stewart said, “Man, do I have a story about a cop that I have to tell you.”

Cunningham then posted another tweet on Sunday after attending church services.

 

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All-Star Race will remain at Charlotte in 2018

Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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NASCAR confirmed that the All-Star Race will be held again at Charlotte Motor Speedway despite more of a push from competitors and others to move the event.

Criticism was raised after last weekend’s 70-lap event featured only three lead changes. Kyle Busch took the lead on the restart to begin the final 10-lap stage and went on to win. It marked the fourth time in the last five years the All-Star winner led every lap in the final stage. In 12 All-Star Races at Charlotte since the track was repaved, there have been two lead changes in the final five laps.

Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations, was clear in a call with reporters Tuesday that the All-Star Race is set for Charlotte.

“We’ve finished our discussions for ’18,” he said. ” We’ll begin looking at ’19 and beyond in the near future.”

The All-Star Race debuted at Charlotte in 1985, moved to Atlanta in 1986 and returned to Charlotte the following year. It has been held at Charlotte ever since.

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