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The hardest working man in racing

October 23, 2012, Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com



The hardest working man in racing
Evernham's level of preparation put the crew chief in a class of his own

All the scenarios that could take place during a race used to keep crew chief Ray Evernham up at night, wondering. Calculating. Figuring.

Evernham had a black notebook that he carried for years, and in it, he kept meticulous details about various tracks and races that had been run there. He knew when cautions had come out at each stop three or four years back, playing the percentages on when yellow flags could fly in the future. Leading into an event, Evernham took the information and pondered -- maybe even obsessed over --what might happen.

"I very rarely waited until I had to make a decision to make it. I tried to have those decisions made, based on the information I had, before the race ever started."

--RAY EVERNHAM

If this happens, I'll do this. When the car handles like this, I'll do that. If the caution comes out at this point, I'll do something else. Fuel mileage? I'll just figure it out two or three different ways beforehand.

Time and time again throughout most of the 1990s, Evernham's over-the-top-and-then-some preparation helped put Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports in position to win before a race ever started. Love them or hate them, they had you beat more often than not during those magical years together.

For Evernham, race strategy boiled down to risk taking and it was his job to eliminate as much of the gamble as possible.

"I very rarely waited until I had to make a decision to make it," Evernham said. "I tried to have those decisions made, based on the information I had, before the race ever started. That's why I loved it when the caution came out, because that was the game I liked to play the most. Having a great driver and great team obviously gave me a lot of options."

In fact, Gordon's first "official" Cup victory at Charlotte on May 29, 1994 came down to simple math for his crew chief. One by one, other leaders pitted for four tires and fuel as the race wound down. Gordon had lost just a couple of tenths on just two fresh skins in pre-race practice, so Evernham had a choice to make.

Two or four? For Evernham, the decision was an easy one. He already knew what to do.

Gordon darted in on Lap 381 of 400 for two tires and a can of gas. Once Ricky Rudd made his final stop ten circuits later, Gordon was able to cruise to a nearly four-second victory over Rusty Wallace.

"I always tell everybody that was simple math," Evernham said. "If you think about it, that was one of those things that was purely cut and dried, black and white."

Here's the funny thing, considering the mission controls found on pit road these days. When Evernham made the momentous decision, one that helped change the course of NASCAR history, he was more than likely pacing around Gordon's pits at ground level. There was a lone chair or maybe two on top of Gordon's small pit box, but Evernham much didn't like it up there until a few years later.

Monstrous pit boxes, however, are not the biggest change in the evolution of the crew chief's role in the sport over the last twenty years or so. A crew chief still has to know a car from front to back, top to bottom, but the job has now evolved into something just short of a position in human resources.

"It's a much more managerial job now," Evernham said. "It's about managing resources and getting people in the right position. You have to pay more attention to the details. A crew chief today is still a team leader, he's still the guy who makes most of the decisions, he's still the guy who pulls everything together.

Jeff Gordon

With Evernham as crew chief
YearStartsWT5T10
199330 0711
199431 2714
*199531 71723
199631102124
*199732 102223
*199833 132628
19992751617

"But he's not ultimately the guy who does most [of the work] any more. There was a time when we built shocks and changed springs, and some of the crew chiefs were even on the pit crew. Now, it's evolved to largely management, decision-making, delegating and processing information."

And let's just say it. Today's crew chief probably has to be ... well ... smarter, according to Evernham. Dealing with a machine and getting it to and from a race is one thing, but then a crew chief has to put on a psychologist's hat in an attempt to understand the psychology of a driver and crew members.

Obviously, some are better at juggling the multitude of jobs than others.

"In some ways, it's not nearly as physical a job as it used to be, but it probably takes a larger mental capacity," he continued. "He's still got to have a balance between racing and engineering. There's some line there where if you do too much engineering, you're not really going to be good and if you do too much racing, you're not going to be good."

At one time, Evernham hung a large checklist in the Hendrick Motorsports shop and it seemed as if items got checked off every week. Nobody to upstart, check. Upstart to contender, done. Contender to winner, absolutely. Winner to champion, yep. The trophy's right here.

Finally, champion to dynasty. That's exactly what Evernham, Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports were together in the 1990s. As effortless as it appeared from the outside looking in, it was anything but from where Evernham sat.

What's truly amazing, though, is that he feels the job of a crew chief is now more difficult than it once was.

"I'd love to tell you it's way easier now and that I was by and away far the greatest and an Einstein, but the truth is, a successful crew chief's job is harder right now," Evernham said. "The competition is greater, in my opinion, than it was. The details that you have to pay attention to on the car are much more minute than it was. You have a lot more tools and resources on the technical side that you have to manage well. The box that NASCAR gives you to adjust your race car is so small that you have to be really, really good at it."

Before he's finished, Evernham adds this. Chad Knaus and Paul Wolfe are incredible crew chiefs who've obviously done well in today's NASCAR climate. Where does he stack up?

"In a way, I'd secretly like to race 'em to find out how good I am," Evernham concluded. "But I'm sure Muhammad Ali always wanted to fight Marciano, too. I do think their job today is harder than mine was 15 years ago."