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Ray Evernham remembers Dale Earnhardt: ‘The day he died I knew racing had changed for me’

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The 1997 Daytona 500 is a staple of Dale Earnhardt lore (despite a 31st-place finish) because of one indelible memory.

After crashing with 10 laps remaining, Earnhardt was sitting in an ambulance when he realized his No. 3 Chevrolet still might be repairable. He got back into his iconic ride, cranked the engine and drove the wounded car back to the pits – without even putting on his helmet.

But the moment didn’t end there for Ray Evernham, crew chief of Jeff Gordon’s winning No. 24 Chevy in that race.

After his car was repaired, Earnhardt mischievously sent a message to his rival while exiting the pits.

“The race is getting ready to go green, here comes this thing driving down pit road — roll cage laid back, roof busted, deck lid taped on,” Evernham recalled with a laugh during the most recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “And (Earnhardt) pulls alongside, revs his motor and flips me off. He had that big goofy smile with that open-faced helmet. He could smile as wide as the opening.

“He wasn’t mad. He was just letting me know, ‘Hey, I ain’t done yet.’ ”

From his days of working as an IROC mechanic, Evernham knew Earnhardt for two decades, and they’d bonded as two racers from blue-collar backgrounds. When Evernham raced Modifieds, he once drove in a firesuit borrowed from Earnhardt (who was of similar build).

“I always treated him with respect,” Evernham said. “I always was in awe of what he accomplished. We talked about a lot of things.

“I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. I wasn’t intimidated by him. I used to give it back to him, and I think he liked that. He’d grab me by the neck, but I’d get behind him and do the same thing. As we raced together, he respected my knowledge and ability as much as I respected his ability as a driver.”

Earnhardt and Gordon’s high-profile battles throughout the mid- to late 1990s enhanced the relationship.

In the recent “Refuse to Lose: 1997 Daytona 500” documentary (which will re-air on FS1 on April 16 at 4:30 p.m., April 17 at 7 p.m.), Evernham and Earnhardt playfully throw shade at each other in the Daytona International Speedway garage.

“Certain people in your life drive you to be better,” Evernham said on the podcast, which recalls the ’97 race. “You care enough about these people or you respect them so much that you want to impress them and be on their level.

“Dale Earnhardt was the best in the business, and I wanted to show him that I could be the best in the business. I wanted to be worthy of being able to compete with him.

“It was probably one of the greatest things in my career to have that friendship with him. We yelled at one another a couple of times, but (he respected) the fact I yelled back at him. ‘Don’t you respect my seven championships?’ ‘I do respect your seven championships, but don’t run into my damn car!’ ”

Evernham left the crew chief role in 1999 and became a team owner starting with the 2001 Daytona 500 in which Earnhardt was killed on the final lap.

“The day he died I knew racing had changed for me,” Evernham said. “I just said to people it’s never going to be the same. That was my first day really as a team owner. We lost Dale Earnhardt in that race, and it never was the same. I think that day some of my fire went out … Even though I loved my time with (drivers) Bill Elliott and Kasey (Kahne), the fire was just never the same after that. It got turned down a notch.”

Evernham left team ownership after selling in 2007. He since has worked as a TV analyst (recently with NBCSN) and also hosts the Velocity show “Americarna,” which started its fourth season Thursday.

During the podcast, Evernham also addressed:

–Why his teams bought into his stern philosophies;

–His brief career as a baseball player;

–The games he played in NASCAR inspections and how they’ve changed;

–His thoughts on some of his No. 24 protégées who went on to great success as crew chiefs: Chad Knaus, Steve Letarte and Tony Gibson.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

 

Atlanta Motor Speedway to delay repave at least a year

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The cries of drivers have been heard. Atlanta Motor Speedway will not repave its track as previously scheduled. Instead, track officials will evaluate the surface following the 2018 race there.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns the track, had planned to have the track surface repaved beginning in late March. It would have been the first repave there since 1997.

Engineers examined the track after the March 5 race to determine if the track surface could last another year with modest repairs. Track officials also consulted with Goodyear and others.

“There’s no question that the surface is worn out, but probably the most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C., was the biggest influence,” Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports of the drivers. “They kind of put the pressure on. I understand.”

After winning there, Brad Keselowski made his pitch not to repave the track.

“Drivers hate repaves,” he said. “We want to see the surfaces last as long as they can.  But the reality is nothing lasts forever, and this surface has made it a really, really long time, 20 years, I think, this season, and they should be really proud of that.

“My hope is they can get another year or two out of it, and I understand if they can’t, and you have to kind of leave it to their expertise and so forth.”

Clark said that work will need to be done to the track before next year’s race.

“The worst part is down the frontstretch in front of the grandstands,” Clark told NBC Sports. “There’s a lot of issues there. We’re actually going to have to cut a few areas and patch … to make it last through 2018. We consulted with Goodyear on that. They don’t think, as long as it is on the straightaway, it is a big issue from a tire standpoint.”

Clark said that the track surface will be sealed in October and should have the patching done before then.

“Let them go ahead and slip and slide one more time in 2018,” Clark said.

Clark said that while anything can change, he doesn’t foresee being talked out of a repave job too many more times.

“You have to see how the weekend goes and what happens,” Clark told NBC Sports. “We had to patch some places after the Saturday events this year, small places. Hey, if we could go two more, great. All you’ve got to do is walk out there and look at it. It is absolutely worn out. But if the drivers say, hey our choice is to race on this surface as it is.

“There comes a point (when a repave is needed). We do have a few drainage issues we do need to correct, some other things when the time comes. Right now, we’re going to get through 2018 and evaluate and see if that is the time or when is it.”

Clark said that when the track is repaved, Goodyear has expressed interest in having two test sessions to determine the proper tire for that 1.5-mile track instead of the customary one because of the track’s challenging surface.

Clark warns that with the excitement of Tuesday’s news, the day is still coming when the track will have to be repaved.

“I can’t see this going two more seasons, maybe only one,” Clark said.

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NASCAR America — My Home Track: 50 States In 50 Shows — Arkansas

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we continued our series of My Home Track: 50 States in 50 Shows as our trucks rolled into Arkansas!

We visited two short tracks in the state that produced President Bill Clinton and Basketball Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen.

Plus we talked to NASCAR Hall of Famer and Arkansas native Mark Martin about racing in his home state.

NASCAR America: Is there cause for concern with Jimmie Johnson’s performance thus far?

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It’s no secret that Jimmie Johnson is off to a slow start in 2017.

The defending and seven-time NASCAR Cup champion has a starting average of 21.8 and a finishing average of 18.8 in the first five races of this season.

He has just one top-10 finish (ninth at Phoenix), along with 34th at Daytona, 19th at Atlanta, 11th at Las Vegas and 21st Sunday at Fontana.

And let’s not forget he’s 17th in the NASCAR Cup standings heading to one of his strongest tracks, Martinsville Speedway, this Sunday.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we discussed this: After such a slow start to the season, is there a cause for concern over Johnson’s performance?

NASCAR America: Mark Martin is definitely a Kyle Larson fan

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin shared his experience of racing in his home state of Arkansas, as well as the excitement he feels watching  Kyle Larson compete in the Cup series.