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Ray Evernham Crew Chief - Nothing Is Forever - Stock Report

Harold HinsonPhotographerBob Myers Writer

Well, not necessarily. Jeff Gordon's lifetime contract with Rick Hendrick to drive for Hendrick Motor-sports and share ownership of the vaunted, DuPont-backed #24 team may eventually seem like an eternity to Winston Cup competitors. Hendrick wasn't about to let his 28-year-old phenom get away after crew chief Ray Evernham left-not that Gordon would want to.

"We're going to race together as long as we race," says Rick Hendrick, whose leukemia is in remission and who, by now, is off medication that has zapped him for more than two years. "This is a decision to get ready for the new millennium, and I couldn't be happier." The agreement is unprecedented in NASCAR Winston Cup.

"I think everybody is aware that Jeff is one of the greatest drivers ever in any kind of motorsports," Hendrick continues, " but I have also seen that he is one of the brightest business minds in the industry. Jeff has reached a point in his career where he is ready to contribute in more ways, and our team is at a stage where his involvement is both needed and welcomed. Jeff is mature way beyond his years." At the same time, Hendrick emphasized that the agreement in no way affects his commitment to his other two Winston Cup teams and his championship NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series entry.

"I wanted to see my name on the side of the #24 Chevrolet for the rest of my career, and that's happened," says Gordon. "I've felt that Rick and I have been partners ever since he signed me (in 1992); now that's on paper. I'm thrilled. Rick is not only a great businessman, but he is also a good person. My role won't change, except I'll be closer to the team and more involved."

Gordon confirmed that he had received other offers, including a package deal with Evernham, who departed to become a team owner and to spearhead the return of DaimlerChrysler (Daimler is the German company that owns Mercedes Benz and merged with Chrysler), specifically the Dodge division, to Winston Cup. "But I was never anywhere close to leaving," he says. "There is no other place I could go that would give me the opportunities I have at Hendrick Motorsports. It (Chrysler) was the perfect deal for Ray, but not for me."

The Gordon-Hendrick partnership should have restored a sense of normalcy to the 300-member Hendrick organization after the distractions and turmoil surrounding Evernham, the only crew chief Gordon had known. They teamed for 47 victories and three championships in 216 starts in a magical seven-year Winston Cup career with the #24 juggernaut Evernham built.

Evernham, 42, the brotherly-even fatherly-mentor and leader and Gordon, the youthful megastar, seemed inseparable, emphasizing many times as they vaulted to Winston Cup's summit that there was no place for one without the other.

In 1998, after the Rainbow Warriors tied Sir Richard Petty's standard of 13 victories in a season and nailed their third title in four years, Evernham leaving Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports would have been an item for "Ripley's Believe It or Not."

The story is a blockbuster-not only Evernham's move but also Chrysler's return to NASCAR's major league after a hiatus of three decades. With drama and some intrigue, and devoid of many details, the story has unfolded for months and will continue to unfold into the millennium.

That Evernham no longer wanted to be a crew chief was not surprising. But his leaving the "Michael Jordan" of Stock car racing-"an incredible winner and maybe the best talent this sport has ever seen," Evernham praises-and Hendrick Motorsports, the sport's most successful outfit for the past four years, was stunning. Friends called to ask if he'd lost his sanity. Fellow competitors expressed amazement.

Evernham had hinted over the past three years that his ambition was to give up his crew chief role and opt for a place in Hendrick management. He was tired of the relentless grind. He had accomplished at Hendrick more than he would ever have imagined, he says. He had checked off the goals on a progression chart: from nobody to upstart, to contender, to winner, to champion, and darn near reached the last one-dynasty.

Admittedly, he had lost his intensity as a crew chief and, like a good quarterback with bad knees, he says, he didn't want to play the game anymore. It was fairly obvious he would not be Gordon's leader in 2000.

Insiders say Evernham wanted more control and authority, to report solely to Rick Hendrick. Well, Hendrick offered to create the position of executive vice president and chief operating officer, answerable only to himself and to president John Hendrick, who assumed that position while his brother battled leukemia and legal problems. But Evernham declined, an indication of just how lucrative the Chrysler deal must be.

Evernham's contract ran through 2006, and Hendrick could have kept him sidelined for a spell. Instead, he gave Evernham a provisional release from his contract. Two of the provisions are said to be that Evernham can't race against the #24 team for one year and is prohibited from raiding the team's personnel. "I decided to assist Ray with a longtime dream that he shared with me of pursing his own team," Hendrick says."Sometimes, it's best to help someone with their ambitions, even if it may not be what you would hope at the time." That attitude is vintage Rick Hendrick. The two parted with a handshake and a hug, and Hendrick has agreed to assist Evernham with the corporate structure of his new organization.

Evernham says he did not try to persuade his driver and best buddy to go with him, because he didn't want to break Gordon's relationship with Rick Hendrick. Evernham told Gordon he had opportunities he needed to consider, but that it would have been unfair to Hendrick to try to influence him.

All sorts of speculation churned about the real reasons Evernham left Gordon and Hendrick. It's fairly simple. He wanted to make a fresh start, to build another championship team, and perhaps a dynasty of his own. There is no better opportunity than Chrysler affords, and no man in the Winston Cup garage is more qualified and capable.

There was no friction between Evernham and Gordon or between him and John Hendrick. Evernham says his relationship with Gordon had changed to the extent that a driver who has won as much as Gordon no longer needed a mentor, as he had when they met nine years ago, but there was absolutely no friction-simply complete trust and respect. Their close friendship is intact. In USA Today, Evernham called reports of friction with John Hendrick pure, vicious fiction, because nothing was further from the truth. Evernham admonished the media for blowing the story out of proportion.

Evernham's leaving Hendrick is reminiscent of, and somewhat comparable to, Kirk Shelmerdine's surprising departure as crew chief for Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress Racing in 1992. Having led Earnhardt and the famed #3 Chevrolet team to 44 victories and four championships in nine seasons, Shelmerdine quit, saying he was burned-out and wanted to scratch an itch to drive race cars. That's what he's doing, in the ARCA series, and also serving as a consultant to teams. In fact, Shelmerdine won his first ARCA race, at Charlotte in October, on the same day Gordon and Hendrick partnered.

Gordon and Evernham hand-picked Brian Whitesell, a virtual stranger outside the organization and Winston Cup garage, as the latter's successor. Whitesell, 35, a mechanical engineer who has been with the #24 team since its inception, initially as the hauler driver, was Evernham's clone and shadow while working through the team's ranks. Whitesell, a Virginian, had more contact with Evernham and Gordon than anybody on the team and had done everything but sit on the war wagon, calling the shots during races.

Amid the #24 team's rocket to Winston Cup's Mount Olympus, the question was, who's responsible for its success? Was it Gordon, or Evernham, or a rare group of Rainbow Warriors, or Hendrick Motorsports? Evernham left a new set of questions: Would the team lose its chemistry, struggle, and fall apart under a new crew chief with no experience in that position? Or would it rise in triumph and unity to the situation? Gordon was worried-but show him a mountain, and he will climb it.

So in a sense, Gordon's victory, his career 48th and sixth of the season, in the first race without Evernham, at Martinsville, may prove to be the most significant of his Cinderella career. Whitesell made the pivotal call, and Gordon was masterful in barely edging Dale Earnhardt. I know of no other Winston Cup crew chief that won his first race. Considering the circumstances, it doesn't get any better than that. Team members hoisted Whitesell on their shoulders, and Gordon sprayed him with champagne. "We answered a lot of questions, didn't we?" Gordon asks. "This team isn't and never has been one person-it's the group. I've never been more proud of them than I was at Martinsville. They were awesome. I think this is a sign of things to come." It was. They duplicated the Martinsville feat in the next race, at Charlotte, and people began to ask, 'Ray who?'"

At Martinsville, however, Evernham was paid a glowing tribute. Gordon says the team would never be where it is today without Evernham, that he had orchestrated the whole thing and left it in good hands. Whitesell says he and the team had used what they learned from Evernham and "just did it. This one is for him." The Warriors may miss a beat, but falling out of championship contention seems unlikely. "I'm not Ray Evernham and don't pretend to be," says Whitesell. "I have a fantastic opportunity. The emphasis is on teamwork and will remain at the center of all that we do and achieve."

Gordon and Evernham's professional relationship has not ended. Co-owners of a Busch Grand National team backed by Pepsi, they plan to team again for five or six races in 2000. "I don't know after that," Gordon says.

Meanwhile, Evernham faces his biggest challenge-building two teams and laying the foundation for DaimlerChrysler. Initially, Evernham's move is a step backward, but he thrives on challenges. He plans to have a Dodge Intrepid, the chosen car, on the track by next October, probably at Charlotte, toward a full effort in 2001. Because all the brands are really "NASCAR cars," there should be ample time to get the Intrepid approved.

Chrysler, involved in the NASCAR Truck Series with Richard Petty, Formula 1, and CART, has a sound motorsports program that's well-funded. Sources say the company wants up to five Winston Cup teams at an estimated investment of $50 million.

When I think of Chrysler, several things come to mind. In the '50s, the late Carl Kiekhaefer's Chrysler 300s were virtually unbeatable, winning so many races in less than two years that the fans booed and Kiekhaefer pulled out. Richard Petty became king in blue Plymouths and Dodges in the '60s and '70s. Then there was the powerful Hemi engine, the winged Plymouth Superbird, and the Dodge Daytona, which NASCAR eventually handicapped out of the sport. That's history, though. There will be no more exotic cars and engines.

My curiosity is further aroused by current Chrysler TV commercials, which use the old Daytona beach course as a backdrop for touting the latest version of the 300. Could that nameplate reappear?

Chrysler is likely to recruit teams beyond Evernham's. Petty Enterprises has campaigned Pontiacs since 1981, but it is more closely identified with Chrysler products than any other Winston Cup outfit. If Chrysler beckons, Richard Petty says he will listen. And so will other owners.

To resurrect an old Chrysler slogan, "And the Beat Goes On."

The only constant in NASCAR, it seems, is change.