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.”

 

AJ Allmendinger making return to Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2018

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After a one-year absence, AJ Allmendinger will return to the Rolex 24 at Daytona next month.

Allmendinger, who drives for JTG Daugherty Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series, will once again drive for Michael Shank Racing in the endurance race at Daytona International Speedway, which will be held Jan. 27 – 28.

A winner in the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Allmendinger will split time in the No. 93 Acura NSX GT3 in the GTD class with Justin Marks, Lawson Aschenbach and Mario Farnbacher.

Allmendinger drove for Michael Shank Racing in the endurance race from 2014-16. His best result during that stretch was fifth in the Prototype class in 2015.

“I am pumped to be back racing for Shank in the (Rolex) 24. I missed the race last year and I hated to, so I’m really glad to be back,” Allmendinger said in a press release. “His whole team did an awesome job with the Acura last year and it is awesome to be back with him for the Rolex. After racing for the overall win so many years in Prototypes, it will be a completely different experience to be racing in the GTD class, but I’m looking forward to it. Mike (Shank) always puts an awesome team together and this year is no different so I am counting down to get my first shot in this car.”

Allmendinger is coming off his fourth full year of driving the No. 47 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing. He finished the season 27th in the standings, his worst during his tenure with the team. He earned one top five and five top 10s.

Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s to sponsor RCR in Cup, Xfinity in 2018

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Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s will sponsor Richard Childress Racing in multiple races in the Cup and Xfinity Series next year, the team announced Monday.

Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s merged in September 2017.

The outdoors brands will be on Ryan Newman‘s No. 31 Chevrolet during the 60th Daytona 500 on Feb. 18 and in several other races during the season.

Richard Childress Racing

They will also be a primary sponsor for Austin and Ty Dillon on the No. 3 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series for several races.

“Our relationship with Bass Pro Shops dates back to the mid-1990s and we’re thrilled to be able to continue it during the 2018 season,” team owner Richard Childress said in a press release. “Austin, Ty and Ryan are terrific ambassadors for the great outdoors. They are all passionate about our hunting, fishing and conservation heritage which has made this partnership thrive.

“Next season will be exciting as we welcome Cabela’s, the iconic outdoor brand acquired by Bass Pro Shops, to the RCR family.”

Bass Pro Shops, founded in 1972 by Johnny Morris, is also a primary sponsor of Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota owned by Furniture Row Racing.

The store chain will be on the hood of the No. 78 in 16 races and on the sides of it in 14 others.

Here’s the eligible drivers for the 2018 Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona

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NASCAR has officially announced the 20 drivers who are eligible to take part in the Cup Series’ season-opening Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway.

The 75-lap exhibition event is set for 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 11, the same day as qualifying for the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

The race will be divided into two segments. A competition caution on Lap 25 will divide them.

Drivers become eligible for the Clash by winning a pole the previous season, being a Daytona 500 pole-winner who competed full-time the previous season or being a playoff driver the previous season.

Here are the eligible drivers.

2017 Coors Light Pole Award Winners (14)

Former Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole Award Winners (3)

2017 Playoff Drivers (3)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth are not expected to compete in the race. Earnhardt retired from Cup competition following the 2017 season and Kenseth doesn’t have a ride for the 2018 season.

Danica Patrick, the 2013 Daytona 500 pole-sitter, announced last month she was done as a full-time driver but that she planned to race in the Daytona 500. No definitive team plans have been announced for her.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Ingram injury update: still in ICU, but continues to show progress

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NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Ingram continues to show improvement from the serious injuries he suffered in a December 3 car crash in his native Asheville, North Carolina.

In an update Sunday written on CaringBridge.org, Ingram’s daughter, Ingrid Jones, said her father remains in the Intensive Care Unit at Asheville’s Mission Hospital.

According to Jones:

“Daddy continues to hold his own, making healing steps forward and then a step back, which we fully expected-but he’s surprising us each and every day with his strength and courage to overcome this. Overall, he’s doing amazingly well.”

Ingram’s family had hoped he could have moved out of ICU and into the Trauma Unit as the next phase of his recovery, but he remains in intensive care.

Said Jones:

“For now, he’ll remain in ICU until he can go a full 24 hours without ventilator assisted breathing. We’re almost there … but may still be a few days.”

Ingram, who turns 81 on Dec. 28, was able to sit in a chair and watched part of Sunday’s NFL game between the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings with his family. Jones wrote that Ingram also was surprised to learn that the mountain near the family’s Asheville-area home received a total of 16 inches of snow Friday and Saturday.

Jones added, “We continue to be optimistic for his health, and we also continue to appreciate the prayers and encouraging thoughts.”