LONG POND, Pa. – The conversation came without a preamble, hint or even a forecast about what Adam Stevens was to hear.
“What are we going to do?’’ Stevens’ father asked him one day.
Stevens neared completion of his mechanical engineering degree at Ohio University. He had three excellent job offers. His family had a construction business. However enticing, none of those jobs swayed Stevens.
“Well, dad,’’ Stevens said, “You taught me to race, and I love it and I want to go race.’’
Stevens, who followed his father into racing dirt Late Model cars, knew he had a better chance of reaching NASCAR as an engineer instead of a driver. Those driving skills? They were best served on the roads he took from Southern Ohio to Charlotte, N.C., more than half a dozen times seeking a job with a NASCAR team.
“We taught all of our children to go after their dreams and not give up,’’ said Jody Stevens of her son Adam and his four sisters.
From endless waits in race shop lobbies, to phone calls that weren’t always returned and teams telling him they didn’t have anything for him, Stevens persevered to reach NASCAR’s top level and do something only two crew chiefs have done in the past 20 years.
Stevens has given Kyle Busch the cars he’s needed to win three consecutive and four of the last five Sprint Cup races. Chad Knaus and Ray Evernham are the only crew chiefs in the last two decades to help their drivers (Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon) win at least three consecutive Cup races. Busch and Stevens go for four in a row today at Pocono Raceway.
They might not be together had Stevens not been so motivated to get a job in NASCAR and then not so stubborn when Joe Gibbs Racing later pursued him.
DIALING LONG DISTANCE
Fittingly, Stevens got the call that a NASCAR team wanted to hire him when he was on the road – returning to Ohio from another trip to the Charlotte, N.C., area.
Petty Enterprises wanted to hire him as an engineer in 2002.
“It was a huge relief,’’ Stevens told NASCAR Talk. “Turning down three real-world good jobs … people think you’re crazy that it was going to work out.’’
All those five-and-a-half hour, one-way trips proved worthwhile. When teams didn’t have available jobs, someone often mentioned a friend to contact with another team. Word spread about this college graduate looking for work.
Brandon Thomas was a crew chief at the time at Petty Enterprises and had heard about Stevens from others. He was looking for more engineering help as teams began to focus in that area to make their cars fast.
Thomas, head of vehicle development at Richard Childress Racing now, also was impressed about where Stevens applied. It wasn’t just with winning teams.
“There’s nothing left to do on a team that is winning,’’ Thomas said. “They’re already winning, so if you join them, yeah, you become a winner but you don’t become a difference maker. If you’re willing to join a team that isn’t winning, you’re going to learn far more there, you’re going to be given far more responsibilities.’’
Because the Pettys had so few engineers, Stevens did many things. Although he raced, he ran on dirt and had never worked on an asphalt car before joining the Pettys.
“There was a lot of learning on the fly,’’ Stevens said.
Three years later, the push was on for more engineers in the sport. Joe Gibbs Racing had an opening when Dave Rogers left his role as engineer on Tony Stewart’s team to be crew chief of the organization’s new third team.
JGR wanted to hire Stevens to replace Rogers.
Stevens didn’t want to go there.
Stevens was reluctant to even consider a job at someplace else. He wasn’t looking for a job. He wanted to help Petty Enterprises return to prominence.
Nelson Cosgrove, engineering manager and technical director for Joe Gibbs Racing from late in 2002 through Jan. 2015 before moving to Toyota Racing Development, had been told about Stevens by Robin Pemberton, who had worked with Stevens at Pettys, and by Thomas, who was at Gibbs.
“Robin told me, if you ever have a need for good young guy, here’s the guy you want and Brandon reiterated that as well,’’ Cosgrove said.
Stevens agreed to an interview but only as a courtesy.
“I didn’t really know much of anything other than what was going on at Pettys,’’ Stevens said. “It would be nice to walk through the shop and meet some people. It always helps to meet people.’’
Even after that, Stevens told JGR he would not join Stewart’s team, which had won 19 races since its debut in 1999 and had never finished worse than seventh in the points though 2004.
“Thankfully, they were really struggling to find a race engineer and they didn’t take no for an answer the first couple of times,’’ Stevens said.
Actually, Cosgrove said, they were focused on Stevens.
“There was something about him,” Cosgrove said. “Honestly, that car was not the easiest car to work on at the time. There was a lot of drama around Tony at that point in time and you needed somebody that was going to be really, really strong and steady and good fundamentally.’’
Stevens eventually saw the opportunities that were possible with Joe Gibbs Racing. That didn’t make the move easier.
“I had tears when I left Pettys,’’ Stevens said.
The question comes up often now. Has Stevens ever been on a roll like what he and Busch are experiencing this season with four victories in the last five Cup races?
Actually, Steven has. After a slow start to the 2005 season – Stevens’ first with Stewart at JGR – Stewart won five of seven races from Sonoma in June to Watkins Glen in August. The two races he didn’t win in that stretch – Chicagoland and Pocono – he finished fifth and seventh, respectively.
The relationship with Greg Zipadelli, then crew chief and now director of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing, grew and the team became even stronger.
“He came across as a very common-sense guy, which that’s what I like because that’s who I am,’’ Zipadelli said. “He had a really level head all the time, didn’t matter how fired up I got. He was always there for me to bounce things off of and vice versa. Most of the time we both learned some thing from our conversations.’’
Stewart went on to win the championship that season. That was the start of Stevens’ tutelage through the JGR system in Cup and then in the Xfinity Series as a crew chief before returning to Cup this season to be Busch’s crew chief.
Stevens’ season was shaken before it started when Busch was injured the day before the Daytona 500 in an Xfinity crash at Daytona International Speedway. Busch missed 11 races. Stevens kept the team together and when Busch returned, the group was ready to win again.
“He’s obviously a great leader in his team,’’ Busch said after his Indy win. “His guys respect him and everybody loves working for him. I enjoy driving his race cars.’’
Said car owner Joe Gibbs: “I appreciate Adam being able to hold everybody together for 11 weeks. That’s hard to do. You think you’re probably out of the Chase? All those guys. You look at them and look at their eyes, hey, there was no backing up. They were after it.’’
After a memorable run, Stevens and Busch appear headed toward completing their long journey to being Chase eligible. In a way, what their path is fitting because for Stevens it’s often been about the journey as much as the accomplishment.