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.