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Evernham in battle to succeed


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001

The champagne and admiration have stopped flowing like they used to. These days, it's long hours at the shop and longer odds at the track.

Saturday was a welcome surprise, a Daytona 500 pole on the first official day of the 2001 season. But that hasn't been the picture we've gotten of Ray Evernham lately.

In the year since he left Hendrick Motorsports, we have seen a different Evernham, one cloaked in uncertainty and imperfection. One worried and uneasy, his back pressed tightly against the wall. One always dreaming about the future instead of rejoicing in the present.

And one clad from head to toe in red, with a Dodge label on his racing suit.

That's not the Ray Evernham we are used to adoring and congratulating. We are used to ingenious pit stop strategies at Indianapolis, engines with no quit in Charlotte and championship seasons that seem like they will repeat forever.

Honestly, could anybody touch the Rainbow Warriors?

Those were the good old times, when winning came easy, expectations usually were fulfilled and Evernham was the hottest thing this side of rubber tires.

But tomorrow beckons, leaving little room or time for reminiscing of days gone by. Evernham's loyalties and focus have shifted. The Dodge folks have entrusted their NASCAR Winston Cup return, not to mention an estimated $100-million, to Evernham this season, and he is determined to give them their money's worth.

Nobody has to tell him about the prodigious heights he could reach if this effort is a success. Or the admonishment that awaits if it's a flop. He already knows.

He has heard the talk. He knows that while all those people were patting him on the back all those times in Victory Lane, they secretly were wondering just how much credit he deserved for getting there.

It's the same second-guessing being directed at Jeff Gordon, who has been anything but stunning since he and Evernham split toward the end of the 1999 season.

What do you think is really responsible for putting that No. 24 car in Victory Lane all those times? Evernham's management? Gordon's driving? Or Rick Hendrick's deep pockets?

Who knows for sure? But Evernham emerged as arguably the leading mind among NASCAR crew chiefs. And, fairly or unfairly, that reputation is going to be validated or rebuffed by Dodge's performance over the next few seasons.

"It's the ultimate challenge," he said.

True, that.

This is like Phil Jackson leaving Chicago and all those championships with Michael Jordan to coach an expansion team. The only thing you can be sure of is that there will be more problems than prosperity.

Take Saturday for what it's worth. Putting Bill Elliott's Dodge on the pole and having two Dodges among the 10 fastest qualifying speeds show some of Evernham's genius.

But even the Dodge folks know winning a pole doesn't guarantee anything come Sunday's race. Nor does it assure Dodge of a good season. Winston Cup racing can be extremely fickle. You can be loved one day, abandoned the next.

Dodge's outlook certainly looks a lot brighter after Saturday's pole-winning effort, but the forecast by most experts still isn't good for Evernham's new team. New manufacturers just don't jump back into Winston Cup racing and blow everyone's doors off.

But Evernham isn't deterred in the least. In fact, he welcomes the long odds. That's what the good ones do. They challenge themselves even when they don't really have to. They bite off more than they know for certain they can chew.

They thrive on the uncertainty, on the rush that comes from putting themselves and everything they've done on the line. I mean, how many great athletes do you know who aren't also a little eccentric?

Sure, Evernham could have played it safe and stayed with Hendrick Motorsports. They had a good thing going and probably would have won more championships than the three they did.

But Evernham was basically only a crew chief. With Dodge, he's running the whole show. He essentially is his own boss.

You can't help but hope for the best for a guy like that. We all should be so adventurous instead of too often allowing fear to keep us from reaching for things seemingly beyond our grasp.

Yes, the reality is he just might fail, and the sterling reputation he has worked so hard to build could take a hit in the process.

But at least he isn't getting off the throttle when his chance arises to go to the front. No, he's tightening his grip on the wheel, shifting into a higher gear and mashing on the gas, content knowing he could end up in the wall or awash in champagne in Victory Lane.

My advice to him? Be careful where you point that cork. Someone could lose an eye.

* * *

COMING FRIDAY: The Times' annual auto racing special section,featuring a look at NASCAR's new TV deal.

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