As Junior searches, Evernham insists he's out
February 08, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte are about to begin their fourth and final year together at Hendrick Motorsports.
In 2015, Letarte will make the move to the television booth as part of the NBC Sports’ NASCAR Sprint Cup Series broadcast team.
A new crew chief for the 39-year-old Earnhardt Jr. isn’t expected to be named until late in the 2014 racing season or after the season has been completed.
Ray Evernham, who led Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon to three of his four championships and 47 victories, has rejoined the competition group at Hendrick, but is adamant that his crew chief days are behind him.
“I used to say, ‘look, you’ve got a better chance of getting hit by a meteorite than me being a crew chief again,’” he said. “But you don’t even have that much of a chance today.”
Still, Evernham, a winner of 13 races as a NASCAR team owner after leaving Hendrick to help Dodge re-enter the sport, obviously has a pretty good idea of the qualities shared by those who have enjoyed success atop the pit box.
“What makes a good crew chief is sometimes I think what makes a good football coach,” he said. “I think if you really wanted to be a great driver and understood what it took to be a great driver but you didn’t have the talent to do it – you know they say those who can’t do, teach. I wanted to drive; man I wanted to drive. But it just wasn’t my calling but I understood what it took. I think I had so much respect for the drivers that I worked with that I would take what they would say to heart.
“The fact that I know how hard it is to drive one of these cars at the level that these guys do, I’ve always respected drivers and worked hard. And understood that it takes a team to pull all that together.
“I felt like I worked hard and worked well with a small group of people. When I had 25 guys I felt like we could conquer the world; when I went and hired 350 we couldn’t get out of our own way. I think it’s that one-on-one connection, but mostly respect for your driver.”
Hendrick doesn’t always promote from within – when driver Kasey Kahne joined the organization in 2012, he brought along crew chief Kenny Francis. Likewise, Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief at Dale Earnhardt Inc., made the move to Hendrick along with Earnhardt Jr. prior to the start of the 2008 season. Even Evernham was hired from the outside to be paired with Gordon in 1993.
But the four-team Cup organization does have a deep talent pool working within its walls. Letarte, Gustafson and Chad Knaus held other positions at HMS before being promoted to the role of crew chief.
Knaus, the series’ winningest active crew chief with 64 career victories, has been paired with Jimmie Johnson since 2002 when Johnson moved into Cup fulltime. Together, they have won six Cup titles in a span of only eight years.
“Jeff and I were good,” Evernham said, “but we could not keep up the level of intensity that those guys have done and I admire that from both of them. Jimmie is one of the most committed persons I’ve ever met in my life. And Chad Knaus is single-minded – his focus is to win as many championships and races as he can and until he decides he doesn’t want to do that, those other guys are in trouble.
“Those guys have got it going on. People say ‘you’re coming back.’ Why would I ever want to come back and have to race against those two guys?”