NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

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.”

 

Starting lineups for the Can-Am Duel qualifying races

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Daytona 500 pole-winner Chase Elliott will lead the field to the green flag in the first of two Can-Am Duel qualifying races Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who secured the No. 2 starting spot for the Daytona 500, will lead the field to the green in the second of the qualifying races.

Those races will set the rest of the Daytona 500 starting lineup.

Click here for Daytona Duel 1 starting lineup

Click here for Daytona Duel 2 starting lineup

With 36 spots guaranteed to charter teams, four teams are vying for the final two spots — Brendan Gaughan and Elliott Sadler already secured two of the four spots for non-chartered teams in qualifying Sunday.

Those seeking to race their way into the Daytona 500 are Reed Sorenson, Corey LaJoie, DJ Kennington and Timmy Hill.

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Where Are They Now? 1970 Daytona 500 winner Pete Hamilton

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Photo courtesy Daytona International Speedway
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It’s been 47 years but Pete Hamilton vividly remembers February 22, 1970 – the greatest day of his racing career – as if it was yesterday.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I necessarily expected anything grand to happen that day,” Hamilton told NASCAR Talk.

Having signed just weeks earlier to run an abbreviated 16-race schedule for Petty Enterprises, the Massachusetts native found himself in the 12th edition of the Daytona 500, driving the No. 40 Plymouth Superbird with its renowned high rear spoiler.

While the pressure of driving for team owners Lee and Richard Petty and in the “Great American Race” may have made other drivers nervous, such was not the case for Hamilton.

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Photo courtesy Daytona Beach Morning Journal

In just the second Daytona 500 of his career (he finished 44th the year before), Hamilton was cool, calm and collected.

And it was those same attributes that led Hamilton to win NASCAR’s biggest race, beating the best of the best, including Petty, A.J. Foyt, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison and David Pearson.

When Richard Petty’s engine expired just seven laps into the 500, Hamilton became the standard bearer for Petty Enterprises and he did not disappoint.

Having qualified ninth, Hamilton ran a patient and methodical race, slowly working his way up through the field. He led two times for four laps along the way until he got into a late-race battle with future NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson.

Pearson had dominated the race, leading 82 laps across five different points, including laps 176-191. But Pearson and his Holman-Moody Ford could not hold off Hamilton, who led the final nine laps en route to victory lane.

“We had ran fast, and I think we ran a little faster than Richard, but I knew that I had a lot to learn,” Hamilton told NASCAR Talk.

“By about three-quarters of the race, we were in third place, and then I passed Bobby Allison and got behind David Pearson and was able to pass him and take the lead. That was pretty damn thrilling for this Yankee boy.

“The last 20 laps or so, David and I fought our hearts out, slipping and sliding. We didn’t beat on each other, but we came damn close, and I was fortunate enough to get the best of that deal.”

The 27-year-old Hamilton, with a winning speed of 149.601 mph, beat Pearson by three car lengths, the only two drivers to finish on the lead lap. It was the fourth time Petty Enterprises had won the “Great American Race” in its 12-year history at that point (it would eventually win the 500 nine times, including seven by Richard Petty).

Remember, this was 1970, so there was no radio communication between teams and drivers. Even though he was the first to take the checkered flag, Hamilton wasn’t completely sure he had won.

So he did something unique in Daytona 500 annals:

“When I took the checkered flag, I made a decision at that point that I wasn’t going to let off. I was going to drive an extra lap just to make damned sure that I was the one in front,” Hamilton said with a laugh.

“That lap after the end of the race, I still was running wide open all the way around. Finally, when I got into turns 3 and 4, I began to slow down. It was a pretty thrilling thing.

“When I got into victory circle I remember I couldn’t stop smiling. Maurice Petty was my crew chief. We had a big old hug and a big old happy time, along with all the guys that had worked on the car.”

The 1970 season would go on to be the best of Hamilton’s NASCAR Grand National career. He also won both races at Talladega that season, and won the 1971 Daytona 500 qualifying race.

All told, Hamilton made 64 Grand National starts, won four races, and earned 26 top-five and 33 top-10 finishes plus three poles.

He retired as a driver after the 1973 season and began building race car chassis. He also built a seven-building warehouse and office complex in suburban Atlanta that he still owns today.

Former champion Darrell Waltrip (seen talking on tv screen) addresses a gathering of Daytona 500 winners in 2005 including Pete Hamilton (left) and Bobby Allison. (Photo by Getty Images).

Now 74, Hamilton is retired and splits his time between Georgia and New England. While he hasn’t attended a NASCAR race since the 50th Daytona 500 in 2008, he said “I’m still an avid NASCAR fan. I watch the majority of the races on TV.”

Then he added with a laugh, “My wife tells me I watch the start of the race, sleep through the middle and then wake up for the end. I don’t know how the hell I wake up for the end, but I manage to see the end of most of the races. She winds up watching most of the race instead of my sorry ass.”

Hamilton will be watching the 59th Daytona 500 this Sunday, but don’t be surprised if his mind goes back 47 years at some point during the day.

“I have a very vivid memory of racing that day with guys like Buddy Baker, Charlie Glotzbach, Bobby and Donnie Allison, and David Pearson,” he said. “It makes you feel real good and proud of what we accomplished together.

“It wasn’t a ‘me’ thing, it was a ‘we’ thing. It took everybody that was on the car to make the thing really go. I was just the driver, the pilot.”

Let us know who you would like to hear about from the past and email Jerry Bonkowski at jerry.bonkowski@Nbcuni.com with your suggestion.

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Fans welcome Dale Earnhardt Jr. back to Daytona with open arms and high spirits

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 19:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With due respect to Chase Elliott for winning the Daytona 500 pole position, he wasn’t the main attraction for the few dozen fans gathered in victory lane after qualifying.

“Let’s go Junior! Whoo!”

“Go Dale!”

“Junebug!”

Finally a voice cut through the din with authority.

“Welcome back!”

Earnhardt, standing beside Elliott while posing for photos between their Chevrolets, lifted his Mountain Dew in tribute as the throngs heartily cheered.

“I had a real good time in the (TV) booth and just to be able to be at the track and be a part of it one way or another,” said Earnhardt, who helped call The Clash race on FS1 (Alex Bowman finished third in his No. 88 Chevrolet) before qualifying second Sunday in his official return to NASCAR. “It feels great. The fans have been super supportive throughout the whole process. I know there are a lot of folks happy to see us all back at the track. The team’s really geared up.

“It’s good to come out of here with a good result today, and we’ll try to build on that. It doesn’t guarantee anything going forward, but it certainly shows we’ve got speed in a straight line.”

After missing the second half of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion, Earnhardt will return to racing Thursday night in the second Duel qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway.

Though he’s been in the car since Saturday, the 14-time most popular driver had made only single-car runs to prepare for qualifying.

Earnhardt admitted he is “antsy to get in the draft and get in some pack racing” when cars return to the track Thursday with a practice at noon.

“I don’t know how much (drafting) we’ll get to do on Thursday aside from before the qualifying race,” he said. “But certainly I’m going to get in that qualifying race and mix it up with them guys. Hopefully we’ll have a good run.

“It’s a great little race car. Our backup car is great, too. You’ve got to kind of think about that backup car these days because there’s the potential to get your car tore up before you ever get it to the 500. We’ve got two great race cars and feel good about our opportunity come Sunday.

“We just hope we can get some time to work on our car in the draft and understand where the balance is (and) just whether we got the car handling where we want it.”

After winning the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014, Earnhardt is anxious to punctuate his return with another victory. He admitted to being so competitive about his comeback that he was a tad disappointed to be knocked off the pole by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

“Yeah, that’s the funny thing about racing is you realize being out of the car how much you might have took it for granted and then you just want to get back in,” he said. “And then when you get back in, you just want to win. Then when you get real close, you’re disappointed. But in the grand scheme of things, this is awesome.

“To be back in the car and be running well and have such a good day and to see (Elliott) do so well … it means a lot.”

Long: Even in celebration, a hint of concern hangs over Hendrick Motorsports

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 19:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, is involved in an on-track incident during the weather delayed Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — On a day when Hendrick Motorsports swept the Daytona 500 front row, the main topic was not how fast its cars were, but if they could make it 500 miles without suddenly darting out of control.

Last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott spun by themselves off Turn 4 in the Daytona 500, and Earnhardt did the same thing at Talladega a few months later.

Sunday, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s blue-and-white Chevrolet snapped loose and turned its nose into the side of Kurt Busch’s car 17 laps into the Clash.

“It’s something I’m very concerned about and to see it again today adds to that anxiety a little bit,’’ Earnhardt said during the FS1 broadcast of the Clash.

Johnson was perplexed. He called his Turn 4 incident “bizarre,” saying his car was fine elsewhere on the track.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, sought to quell any fears by downplaying Johnson’s incident.

“I feel it’s something that we can combat fairly easily,’’ Knaus told NBC Sports. “I’m not too concerned at all.

“I wouldn’t say it’s anything with Hendrick specifically.’’

Although Knaus is known as one of the mentally strongest people in the garage, his Jedi mind tricks couldn’t calm some of his teammates.

Earnhardt later said that his team was looking over notes from previous years to explain the spate of spins. Pole-winning crew chief Alan Gustafson admits he’s concerned after Elliott had spun in last year’s race.

What is unnerving for some at Hendrick Motorsports is that even with three days of practice before the Daytona 500, they won’t see enough cars on track to reliably ensure the car’s balance is correct.

With the qualifying races in cooler conditions at night, it doesn’t provide as good a gauge, especially with warm temperatures and a slick track forecasted for the Daytona 500.

The best time to prepare for those conditions is to practice during the day, but Earnhardt and Gustafson admit that won’t be helpful because many teams limit how much they run to avoid getting collected in a wreck and having to go to a backup car. Packs will be small.

“If you don’t have 20 cars (practicing together), you’re probably not going to get a great read on what your car is going to do,’’ Gustafson said. “You need to have 20 cars for more than five, six, seven laps at a time.’’

That’s critical because tires are starting to play a more important role. The track’s surface is wearing and that makes handling more important.

Without those large packs in practice, teams will have to rely on simulation and other engineering tools.

Even with those resources, Turn 4 has become the Bermuda Triangle for Hendrick Motorsports, a team which has one victory in the last eight restrictor-plate races.

“That exit of Turn 4 is tough,’’ Elliott told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely easy to get in a bad way and get bound up or get in a bad aero situation up off 4, and the balance is starting to become a factor here again, which is good news I think for the folks who sit up in those bleachers and the people who watch on TV.’’

Johnson and Knaus both speculated that track position played a role in the No. 48 car’s wayward actions. Johnson fell back in the pack before losing control of his car.

“I have to assume it’s relative to the height of the rear spoiler,’’ Johnson said. “When there’s less air and the air is so turbulent back there, the spoiler is so small it’s really easy to get the pressure off it and then the back just rotates around.’’

So what will have to be done?

“We can adjust rear shocks, rear ride height and try to get more pitch in the car in a sense to keep the spoiler up in the air longer,’’ he said.

If it was that easy, there wouldn’t be the concern for some at Hendrick Motorsports even as Elliott celebrated his second consecutive Daytona 500 pole and Earnhardt relished his return by starting next to his teammate.

Of course, those cars had run alone on the track Sunday. It’s when they’re around other cars that raises questions.

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