Ten years ago, Ray Evernham was one of the hottest hires in NASCAR, on the cusp of taking Dodge back into Cup Series contention for the first time since 1978. Leading Jeff Gordon to three championships at Hendrick Motorsports, the hard-nosed former crew chief and car owner later rebuilt Cup veteran Bill Elliott's career and has always been considered one of the leading innovators in the business. So now, in 2011, after spending time on the sidelines post-ownership, the man whose talents even took him on-air with ESPN becomes ... an auto parts consultant?
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
Appreciate the love on the
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 ...
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 ...
Sure I have, Leon, and so has the rest of SI. Tim Tuttle did an excellent piece on
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.
Tom, Racing-reference.info 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 ...
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.