Feature Story

A New Beginning

By Spencer Lang

The end of the Jeff Gordon-Ray Evernham-Rick Hendrick triumvirate did not occur on September 29, 1999 when Evernham was released from his contract with Hendrick Motorsports. It actually ended in Atlanta, Georgia after the last race of the 1998 season when Jeff Gordon crossed the finish line to win his 13th race of the season, his third championship within four years, and fourth consecutive championship for Hendrick Motorsports. It was at that moment that the dynasty stakes had been achieved. Hendrick Motorsports was exonerated for putting an unknown crew chief with a rookie driver in 1993 and giving them the resources to put together a winning team. Two championships won by thin margins was replaced with a pedal to the metal, blow away the competition run.

In 1997, Evernham was disappointed in how the team won the title. Coasting to the finish with a 17th place finish to win by a scant 14 points. In November of 1998, no one could deny that the DuPont team was in a position of dominance. There were very few records left for the triumvirate to accomplish in 1999. In essence, they had accomplished everything beyond their wildest expectations. The time had come for new challenges.

Team owner Rick Hendrick is a visionary in knowing what he needs to be successful. Instead of micro managing situations, he found the right people and let them pick their own people to accomplish his dream. Remember the stupidity of letting a rookie driver pick a crew chief with no Winston Cup experience? In 1993, Gordon seemed only able to fill a junk yard with expensive cars from Hendricks Motorsports. However, Gordon learned not only from his stepfather but from Hendrick and Evernham that the key to his success was the people he kept around him. Gordon has proven to be quick study.

Evernham brought something to the table other than the full confidence of a young driver. He saw things differently than other crew chiefs. As he moves onto new challenges, he leaves a new benchmark that all other crew chiefs will be measured against. Before Ray Evernham, only other racers and true insiders appreciated the job of a crew chief. Today, crew chiefs have become as important as the driver.

Will there eventually be another great mix of talent that will equal the relationship that Gordon and Evernham shared at Hendrick Motorsports? Maybe, but the press shouldn't hold their breath. The auto racing reporters became more like the National Inquirer or Washington, D.C. political reporters during this recent episode. The stories of threat and demands between the key players really doesn't hold much water. Most quotes have been out of context and without merit. The victories, along with the successful battles against leukemia waged by Rick Hendrick and Ray Evernham's son brought the team together.

Not one of the group has pitched a bad comment about the other, although the press did give it as much as they could. If you need to understand about friendship, take time to see 'Good Will Hunting,' one of the best movies I've seen on friendship. You have to really love the other to let them go and do their own thing. You can't keep them caged with your own personal needs. That's how Rick Hendrick felt when Ray Evernham told him about his intentions to start his own Winston Cup team. He didn't hold him back even though he could have. After all, Evernham had a contract with the organization thru 2006. Other car owners might have preferred to get the lawyers involved to hold the employee to the terms of the contract. But that's not how Hendrick Motorsports operates. Ray Evernham left the motorsports complex on Papa Joe Hendrick Boulevard for the final time on September 29, 1999. But a part of him will always remain there.

Best wishes Ray. Thanks for the memories.

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