Tom Bowles: Evernham slyly making way back to track - Sports Illustrated

Evernham's return as a salesman may be step back toward the track

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Sounds harsh, right, like a top-notch mechanic forced to take a job behind the counter at Pep Boys. But here's the straight-up quote from the press release announcing the great head wrench's return "home" to Hendrick, working as a consultant through his newly-formed company, called Ray Evernham Enterprises:

"REE's initial focus will be development of the Hendrick Performance retail brand of high-performance parts, vehicles, products and related services."

Hmm. You're telling me a man who's lived and breathed every aspect of stock car racing, even co-owning a local short track (East Lincoln Speedway in Stanley, N.C.) is suddenly going to be happy selling cars? Call me crazy, but I have a hard time believing that. I do believe the man when he says his days atop the pit box are over, that it's time for him to pursue a management type role in the sport he relished when working with drivers like Gordon, Elliott, Elliott Sadler and Kasey Kahne.

Whoops. Did I say Kahne? Just so happens that the former prodigy is headed Hendrick's way in 2012, driving the No. 5 Chevy while bringing Evernham Motorsports' former chassis-perfecting prodigy Kenny Francis along with him. And whom is Kahne going to be sharing that shop with? Why none other than Evernham's former pal Gordon, who recently stated he'll drive for another four to five years before retiring.

So sure, Ray, have fun selling those auto parts in 2011. I'm sure you're about to make a chunk of change that might even make Danica Patrick jealous. But the second someone or something at HMS starts to struggle in the racing sector, it's easy to imagine those "special projects" would change their focus in a heartbeat. And notice we've gone this far without mentioning the NASCAR, heartthrob, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ... who also happens to be a part of Hendrick's future. Yeah, Ray, I wouldn't get too comfy on the "Hendrick Performance" side if I were you.

Junior's status actually leads off this week's mailbag full of a hodgepodge of 2011 questions and concerns. Don't be afraid to voice yours, staying in touch through or Twitter @NASCARBowles. Let's get started...

It was just three weeks ago that Hendrick stated that he wanted to keep Junior in the fold with another extension. Are you saying in your columns last month that Junior may not sign it, or that Hendrick will show him the door? It seems to me that Hendrick is a smart enough businessman and was fairly certain that Junior would be in his stable for awhile, that he would not have brought it up if it wasn't the case. Also, can you tell me when Hendrick has ever had four front-running teams? Never. I like Junior, although I have never thought he would win a title, I do think he can maybe get a few more wins before he hangs it up.-- Jay, Raleigh, N.C.

Let's answer your question about four front-running teams first. Everyone knows Hendrick hasn't put all four cars into the Chase since the format changed back in 2004. But since the team conducted its latest expansion, adding Jimmie Johnson to the fold in 2002, the struggles of at least one car in the stable have been particularly notable. Here's a quick list of where the Hendrick drivers have finished in points:

2002: 4th (Jeff Gordon), 5th (Jimmie Johnson), 24th (Terry Labonte), 34th (Joe Nemechek -- replaced Jerry Nadeau midseason)2003: 2nd (Johnson), 4th (Gordon), 10th (Labonte), 25th (Nemechek)2004: 2nd (Johnson), 3rd (Gordon), 25th (Brian Vickers), 26th (Labonte)2005: 5th (Johnson), 11th (Gordon), 20th (Kyle Busch), 25th (Vickers)2006: 1st (Johnson), 6th (Gordon), 10th (Kyle Busch), 15th (Vickers)2007: 1st (Johnson), 2nd (Gordon), 5th (Kyle Busch), 15th (Casey Mears)2008: 1st (Johnson), 7th (Gordon), 12th (Dale Earnhardt, Jr.), 20th (Mears)2009: 1st (Johnson), 2nd (Mark Martin), 3rd (Gordon), 25th (Earnhardt)2010: 1st (Johnson), 9th (Gordon), 13th (Martin), 21st (Earnhardt)

As you can see, even when HMS pulled off the unprecedented 1-2-3 finish in '09, Junior's team was lagging badly behind in 25th. All four teams have won races in the same year -- it happened most recently in '07 -- but there's a difference between someone getting a lucky, fuel mileage victory, such as Casey Mears in the Coke 600 that year and Jeff Gordon winning 10 races and scoring 30 top-10 finishes. Clearly, it's hard to argue that HMS equipment has been consistent across the board, the 24/48 shop clearly outperforming their 5/88 (and formerly 5/25) counterparts virtually every season since Johnson revitalized that part of the program.

Which brings me to a certain Dale Earnhardt Jr. Let's say a nightmare scenario develops, one where moving into Johnson's shop does nothing to increase the Most Popular Driver's level of success. He ends the year 20th in points, winless while the other three HMS teams make the Chase and contend for the championship. Fifty feet away, his stablemate, Johnson, ends up winning a sixth straight title and seven races on the year. What do you do if you're Earnhardt's primary sponsors, AMP and National Guard? Would you sit there, knowing the price tag is bigger than virtually any other driver in the sport, and siphon money to a team that seems destined to always be a step behind the curve?

The answer, to me, seems obvious. But those sponsors also know they won't get the same marketing bang for their buck out of, say, a Greg Biffle, whose fans are outnumbered by the Junior lovers 10 to 1. When you look at it that way, they could end up with a large degree of say in this process as well, as Earnhardt has a good relationship with both and those companies could see greater value in aligning with another top-notch team to switch up the chemistry.

So, to answer your question, of course Hendrick is going to want to sign Junior from a business standpoint. The money from those sponsors can help the organization as a whole, and why would you not want the most marketable driver in the fold? Heck, Kyle Petty was able to keep driving for 13 years after winning his last race, a famous last name good enough to keep his job despite lackluster results. Ultimately, though, Earnhardt's desire to return to championship contention combined with a sponsor's wish to do the same may prove the ultimate trump card.

I like all of your predictions from your first column of 2011 ... except the Ryan Briscoe one. All three Penske drivers are chokers. But none more than Briscoe. He constantly has brain freezes and ends up in the wall. He isn't 20 years old. Why would he break out of it now? Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon are anything but chokers. Both are smooth as ice. Dixon or Dario wins the Indycar title again. Keep Power for now, but Roger Penske needs new drivers if he wants to do more than win the 500.-- Steve, Ohio

Hmph. Sorry, Steve, but the statistics just don't match your e-mail. Sure, as a rookie Briscoe was a mess, wrecking seven times in 14 starts with Chip Ganassi. Ever since the move to Penske, though, he's shed that reputation and has just three DNFs for wrecks the last two seasons. Compare that to two-time defending champion Franchitti, who has one in the same span. Yes, that's a difference ... but not by much.

The key for Briscoe is to build on his oval track success. Seemingly better on road courses to start, his last three victories have come on the circle tracks of Kentucky, Chicago and Fort Worth. With some of the other top teams in transition -- Ganassi is expanding while Andretti Autosport lost veteran Tony Kanaan -- combined with additional financial support from Verizon, now's the time for Penske to make its move toward a title. Turning 30 this year, Briscoe's entering his prime, and it wouldn't surprise me if the guy seized his opportunity for success.

I've noticed that for many of the longer races I either change channels or go do something else after the first half-hour and then I come back with about a half hour to go. Recently, though I saw some British Touring Car racing and the afternoon was made up of two or three races. It kept my interest the whole time. Any chances of this in NASCAR? Obviously not for the marquee events, but at Kansas, Chicago etc. ... this might make sense.-- Brian Wilkins, Buffalo

IndyCar's trying that type of format for the first time this year. On June 11, they'll have Twin, 114-lap races down at Texas Motor Speedway, awarding "half points" for the finishing order of each event. Some of the timing particulars have yet to be worked out, but fan support has been overwhelmingly positive thus far.

On the NASCAR side, there are no plans to do any such thing as yet. I've heard the idea floated around that they should try it at a place like Pocono, where 500-mile races can take over four hours to complete and lose the ADD generation at a track where passing comes at a premium. A 50-lap Truck Series race there was well-received, and it might revitalize that speedway to hold two, 200-mile races on the Cup side instead of one. If the IndyCar trial proves successful, I could see NASCAR taking a look down the road, especially at some of the venues you mentioned, too, but I think it has more pressing issues to address on their agenda first.

I've criticized you when you've trashed Dale Jr., so I want to congratulate you for the pieces you've done on Brad Keselowski this year. When it could have been easy to burn him, you've taken the high road and recognized him as an honorable young man with a very hopeful future. Thank you for all the really great interviews with Brad and the stand-alone stories as well. Happy New Year to you and yours.-- Virginia, Waco, Texas

Appreciate the love on the Brad diary. You know what I learned the most about Keselowski this year? His level of intelligence, both on the track and off. Always knew the guy was smart, but for a man who fans think passion gets the better of he's far more calculated a thinker than you'd expect. Don't be fooled by the petty 2010 statistics on the Cup side, as the No. 12 Dodge is getting a face-lift this offseason and should be competitive to at least slide into the top 20 in Cup Series points in 2011. I don't think Kes will win the Nationwide championship again -- he may not even be eligible for it -- but that experience served him well, keeping confidence up during a difficult transition into NASCAR's major leagues last year.

Kinda funny, though, that the first two SI diary selections (Kes and Carl Edwards) wound up flipping each other not once, but multiple occasions during their experiences with me. I hope that doesn't discourage our 2011 Diary pick from signing on board ...

The final 10 dates of the NASCAR season should consist of two races of 100-200 laps each, depending on the length of the track. One race would be for the 15 Chase drivers; this way, non-Chasers would not be a factor. The second is a race for the rest of the Cup drivers, a maximum of 43. This would give exposure to new teams and drivers.-- Gary K. Peterson, Foresthills, Calif.

What's with the doubleheader e-mails this week? People must be getting antsy for racing to start back up. Anyway, I understand where you're coming from but have never bought into the concept of Chasers being separated from the field like that in any way, shape or form. To me, it would just be weird to see the 12 or 15 guys inside the playoffs fighting it out on-track among themselves over 200 laps instead of all 43 cars jockeying for position. There's something to the art of dodging lapped traffic and utilizing the positions of other cars to your advantage. With a field that small, those little things to separate pretenders from contenders disappear.

There's also the risk of de-emphasizing the importance of the rest of the field, even if they get a second race all their own. Would sponsors ask for a discount to be part of a "consolation" event? What about commercials? While fans might like the idea -- their favorite non-Chase driver would get put on TV more often -- I'm not quite sure the corporate world would be quite so understanding. Money does make the world go round ...

With so much talk about Danica, ever heard of Johanna Long, 18-year-old driver of the No. 20 Toyota Tundra in NCWTS? She's the best female racer out there. Johanna won the 44th Snow Ball Derby (37-car field) that included several NASCAR regulars as well the best short track racers in the country. I can send you a DVD of one of the best races I've ever seen.-- Leon Colbert, Pensacola, Fla.

Sure I have, Leon, and so has the rest of SI. Tim Tuttle did an excellent piece on Long and her 2011 options in case you didn't see it. Tuttle is high on her talent, and I agree that with the right opportunity she's more than capable of shooting up the NASCAR development ladder the next couple of years.

What's the biggest obstacle? Same as the dozens of male drivers currently sitting on the sidelines: Money. The biggest problem with women and minorities in the sport, and that includes NASCAR's Drive For Diversity program, is they succeed in the lower levels only to hit some sort of financing brick wall when it comes to series where companies need to spend $5 million, not $500,000, to back them. It's not quite at the Branch Rickey-Jackie Robinson level, but some company needs to step outside the box and be willing to take some risk in promoting an unproven driver for someone to be successful.

Patrick notwithstanding, these diversity candidates always end up in the same ugly cycle. If they're in the diversity program, after one or two years they stall out, their partnership with NASCAR ends and they wind up unemployed and incapable of making the jump to the majors. Or, if they try to strike out on their own, as Long is doing with her own team, they do it without the proper resources and funding to make them competitive on-track. Suddenly, five starts produce runs of 25th, 27th, 29th or worse and any sponsor even thinking of hedging their bets closes its door in this "win now, develop later" financial environment.

That said, I hope Long hits on the right combination that'll lead toward long-term success. The talent is certainly there ... but in today's racing world, that only gets you so far at the upper levels.

Can you tell me, please, who was the REAL NASCAR champion this year? I mean, without this "Chase" nonsense. Who earned the most points for the whole season? Is there somewhere I can get this information for all of the past few years, (since this contrived "Chase" garbage was instituted?)-- Tom Praska, Minneapolis, Minn.

Tom, keeps "old school" point standings every year that show who the champion would have been without the Chase. This year, Kevin Harvick would have won in a cakewalk, clinching at Phoenix over closest challengers Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

Keep in mind, though, that everyone races differently according to the format. Harvick spent the whole year with something to prove, in the last year of his contract and in need of a new sponsor after Shell/Pennzoil bolted to Penske for 2011. Johnson and Hamlin? They knew making the Chase was a mere formality, spending many regular season races "testing" instead of showing their cards when it didn't matter. Bottom line, I find it hard to believe the gap would have been 285 points if the Chase format really didn't exist.

And finally, the "out of left field" e-mail of the week ...

Born in 1981? Well! That explains a LOT. Happy New Year! ... kid.-- Joe

Was that supposed to be an insult? I'll take "kid" any day of the week ... even if it means still getting carded for an "R" rated movie! Thinking that might serve me well 20 years down the road ...

Take care, all.

Last Week's Trivia Answer: This answer comes from one of our friends up north, Greg Marshall of Kamloops, British Columbia: "The last NASCAR Cup race run in was at Riverside, Calif. in 1981, won by Bobby Allison." He's right, of course (Jan. 11, '81 to be exact) but here's what you're really wondering about: Kamloops is real, not imaginary as I might have thought. Thank God for Google Maps! Turns out this random Canadian city, 150 miles from Vancouver also has its own share of famous fast athletes, too: mountain bikers. Wade Simmons, Brett Tippie, and Richie Schley, famous for freeriding all spend much of their time in the city of about 92,000.

This Week's Trivia Question: Since we're talking Canada, eh, who's their lone driver to win Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year back in the states?

Tweet of the Week: "@JLogano welcome to twitter. Ur fans are probably all telling u that it's about damn time. I bet ur girl got u into it huh? Lol" -- @kylebusch welcoming his teammate to Twitter. In 24 hours, Logano had over 880 followers on the site. By the way, Kyle's now a married man ... he tied the knot with Samantha Sarcinella over New Year's.