Jeff Gordon's crew chief is moving on to greener pastures
Jeff Gordon has long known that one day he would lose Ray
Evernham, the only crew chief he has had in eight seasons with
the Hendrick Motorsports team and a man largely responsible for
Gordon's three Winston Cup championships over the past four
years. Gordon just never knew when Evernham would go or what
would lure him away.
Though no official announcement about those particulars had been
made at week's end, team owner Rick Hendrick spent Monday trying
to resolve Evernham's contract, which runs through 2006. The
crew chief reportedly was poised to join a NASCAR effort being
planned by automotive giant DaimlerChrysler Corp. According to
sources, Hendrick was considering granting Evernham his release
with the stipulation that he not compete in NASCAR for a year
and that he not hire any Hendrick employees.
Evernham is widely thought to have organizational and
engineering talents far beyond his job description as a crew
chief, which is why he might be chosen to help lead a NASCAR
program at DaimlerChrysler Corp., the company born last year of
the merger of Chrysler Corp. and Daimler-Benz, parent company of
Mercedes-Benz. Sources within the company say that an
announcement about DaimlerChrysler's NASCAR plans would be made
in the next two months. The team would not begin to compete in
Winston Cup before 2001. The Chrysler brands, Dodge and
Plymouth, have been absent from NASCAR for 20 years. Chrysler
enjoyed its last real success in NASCAR in the 1970s, when
Richard Petty drove Chrysler cars to six Winston Cups.
If the deal materializes, there is a good chance that Evernham
would have at his disposal the enormous technological resources
of two British-based firms, Ilmor Engineering and Reynard, both
of which have ties to DaimlerChrysler. Ilmor builds the engines
that power the McLaren-Mercedes Formula One team, which features
defending F/1 world champion Mika Hakkinen. Reynard builds the
cars that have powered Target-Ganassi racing to three
consecutive CART championships. Developing NASCAR engines would
be "a complete departure from the direction we're going in at
the moment," said Paul Ray, Ilmor's vice president of U.S.
operations. But, he conceded, "It would be extremely interesting
to take on a project like that."
Evernham apparently agrees.
UNSER JR. BACK IN THE 500?
Indianapolis Or Bust
Al Unser Jr. expects to race in next year's Indianapolis 500 for
the first time in six years. Despite numerous reports that he
was signed, sealed and delivered to the IRL, however, he still
doesn't know whether he'll drive full time in the IRL or NASCAR
in 2000. Unser, a 17-year CART veteran who hasn't won a race
since '95, learned in August that Roger Penske would not retain
his services next season, and the 37-year-old driver couldn't
close a deal with any other CART owner. One of the IRL owners
with whom Unser has negotiated is Rick Galles, a former CART
owner whose car he drove to the first of his two Indy 500
victories, in 1992. Unser has also talked with CART's Cal Wells,
who is expected to add a NASCAR team to his stable next season.
"NASCAR drivers are making a lot of money with their
merchandising," says Unser, "and to race in front of that many
people [Winston Cup attendance averages 191,000 per event] is
something that appeals to me. My first love is single-seat,
open-wheel race cars, and I'm leaning toward that. But if the
best deal that comes along has fenders on it, so be it."
Unser has proved himself in stock cars. He has a record 11
victories in the International Race of Champions Series, the
26-year-old event that pits drivers from CART, the IRL and
NASCAR in equally outfitted stock cars. Unser also ran well
early in the 1993 Daytona 500, his only NASCAR appearance,
before being wrecked by his friend Dale Earnhardt.
Should Unser end up in NASCAR, he says, he will insist that his
contract allow him to race in the Indy 500, the crown jewel of
the IRL's 11-race schedule. His father, Al Unser Sr., won the
Indy 500 four times, and his uncle Bobby won it three times. Al
Jr. won the race in his last appearance there, in 1994, but
failed to qualify in 1995 and has sat out the past four years
because of CART's ongoing feud with the IRL. "I've been away
from it too long," Al Jr. says.
CART'S TEXACO GRAND PRIX
Houston, We Have a Problem
A funny thing happened to team owner Chip Ganassi in Sunday's
Texaco Grand Prix of Houston. Just when he seemed to be on the
brink of clinching a record fourth consecutive CART season
championship, Ganassi neglected to tell his driver, Juan Pablo
Montoya, where a wrecked car was sitting around one of the blind
corners on the downtown street circuit. Montoya, leading on Lap
13 of a scheduled 100, plowed into the wreckage and damaged
Ganassi's Reynard-Honda too badly to continue. Team Green's
Dario Franchitti scrambled back from early handling problems to
finish second to teammate Paul Tracy and cut Montoya's points
lead from 29 to 13--easy shooting distance with two races
remaining. (A driver can gain as many as 22 points on an
opponent in one race.)
On serpentine street circuits, where high temporary walls limit
vision, drivers depend heavily on spotters out on the track and
TV monitors in the pits. "Maybe Chip was looking at his
reflection in the monitor," cracked Tracy, who delighted in the
Montoya, 23, has been CART's dominant driver this year, with
seven wins. He started the race on the pole, needing only 15
points to clinch another title for Ganassi, who had won in 1996
with Jimmy Vasser driving and in '97 and '98 with Alex Zanardi.
Montoya's day was going fine as he led the first 12 laps, but
Helio Castro-Neves spun out on the 10th corner of the circuit,
bringing out a full-course caution. Ganassi says that in the
ensuing radio conversation he told Montoya, "'Full yellow, full
yellow!' Juan said, 'O.K.' We said, 'Slow down, stay out.' He
said, 'O.K.' Then he said, 'F---! I just crashed.'"
Montoya called it miscommunication. "It's happened before, and
it'll happen again," he said, blasting Ganassi. "Nobody told me
anything was there. I saw a yellow flag, and they yelled, 'Full
course yellow!' Chip told me to stay out. He didn't say, 'Watch
the cars.' He didn't say anything else. I backed off, came
around, and there was a car blocking the middle of the racetrack."
After Montoya fell out, Tracy dominated the race, leading all
but three of the last 88 laps and winning by a comfortable
13.733-second margin over Franchitti.
CALLING IT LIKE IT IS
Ned Jarrett's In a Tough Spot
Broadcaster Ned Jarrett, whose play-by-play account of his son
Dale's first Daytona 500 win, in 1993, was one of the memorable
moments in CBS's 20 years of telecasting the race, says he now
faces a tougher assignment. He's scheduled to provide color
commentary for three of the last seven Winston Cup races of the
season, a stretch during which Dale could clinch his first
Winston Cup title. Heading into this week's race at
Martinsville, Va.--one of the three Ned will call--Dale holds a
commanding 257-point lead over Mark Martin.
"If Dale goes into the final race and has to finish in a certain
spot to lock up the championship, it's going to be
nerve-racking," says Ned, who won NASCAR championships in 1961
and '65 and will be working that season finale at Atlanta on
Consecutive Winston Cup races that Terry Labonte has started,
more than any other active NASCAR driver.