Innovative Evernham finds pot of Hall of Fame gold at the end of the ‘rainbow’

Note: This is the fifth in a five-part series of features detailing the careers of each of the five inductees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018. The inductees, who will be officially enshrined on Jan. 19 (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), are Red Byron, Ray Evernham, Ron Hornaday Jr., Ken Squier and Robert Yates. For tickets to the Induction Ceremony, visit nascarhall.com/inductees/induction-ceremony

Even before answering the first question from a ready group of racing reporters about his induction Friday into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Ray Evernham, 60, insisted on making an important point.

“I want to make it clear to everybody on the [conference] call, I know you thank me for the time, but it’s an honor to be able to sit here and take questions for the Hall of Fame,” Evernham said.

“I can do this all day if you want,’’ he added, with a laugh. 

He certainly would have plenty to discuss in his NASCAR Hall of Fame career that began at Bill Davis Racing guiding a young Jeff Gordon before serving as crew chief for three of Gordon’s four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championships at Hendrick Motorsports and then owning a flagship team himself that led to some of the sport’s great crowning moments.

Under Evernham’s leadership with the famed “Rainbow Warriors” No. 24 Chevrolet team, Gordon rolled to 47 premier series wins in just seven full seasons before Evernham transitioned to a completely new role and fresh challenge: Premier series ownership.

Evernham operated and succeeded in similar style, spearheading Dodge Motorsports’ triumphant return to Monster Energy Series racing in 2001. Fellow Hall of Famer Bill Elliott earned Evernham Motorsports its inaugural victory in that 2001 season finale at Homestead, Fla. – the first of 15 total wins for Evernham’s team.

And the veteran Elliott added a dramatic Brickyard 400 trophy for the team the very next year – in one of the most celebrated victories in NASCAR.

Young Washington-state bred Kasey Kahne joined the operation to earn Rookie of the Year in 2004 and then immediately challenge for the series championship with six wins the following season.  Kahne also hoisted all five of the Evernham team’s XFINITY Series race trophies as well.

It is the definitive modern day NASCAR success story of a two-fold career that produced trophies, championships and ultimately, Hall of Fame recognition alongside the most important people in the sport’s history.

No question, Evernham’s work with a young Gordon is what put his name in the NASCAR vocabulary.

He is only the third designated “crew chief” to be voted into the Hall of Fame, and the first in five years. And considering he worked with Gordon for a relatively short term – seven years – the huge success they enjoyed is even more remarkable.

Obviously, Gordon’s immense talent had a lot to do with the results, but Evernham proved to be an expert at making it all possible.

“You know, there’s a big difference in what I call ‘coaching’ and ‘managing,'” Evernham said. “I don’t like to be a manager. I don’t like to be a business-type manager where you’re just directing people. But I really enjoyed the coaching, working with people together, solving problems, being part of a team, that kind of environment.”

“Whether I should try to think I deserve to be even mentioned in a Lombardi style or not, that’s kind of who I patterned after. Tough on people, drive them hard, but cared about them. You’ve got to be able to have that compassion along with determination.”

“That part I enjoyed. I loved working down on the floor with the guys. I loved being at the race track.’’

Evernham still insists that it was a difficult decision to step off the pit box with certain future Hall of Fame driver in order to develop his own team with Dodge.

But the New Jersey native also conceded, it was just in his makeup, to pursue and continually challenge himself. The opportunity with Dodge was intriguing and proved Evernham’s abilities on a grander scale. And he certainly delivered on the big stage – again.

“It wasn’t a no-brainer,’’ Evernham explained of his decision to leave the championship Hendrick organization to start his own.

“It was a really, really, really interesting opportunity. It was something that I struggled with because Hendrick was my home. Rick Hendrick has been good to me. I had a lot of my success and things there. It was a tough decision to look at where I really wanted to go, what I thought I could do.”

“The emotional connection to Hendrick and to Jeff was very, very tough for me,’’ Evernham said. “But the excitement of being able to take that challenge, just to see if you could do it. … I don’t know, it’s that Evel Knievel in all of us knowing that if I don’t make that jump, I’m going to bust my butt, but I still really want to do it.”

And Evernham landed the jump.

The opportunity to field cars for a former champion in Elliott along with the promise and results of a handful of young drivers – such as Kahne, Casey Atwood, Jeremy Mayfield and Elliott Sadler – made Evernham’s gamble worth it.

And when he decided to walk away from the daily demands of either working as a crew chief or a team owner, Evernham had to feel absolutely proud of his effort — an effort long applauded and now officially recognized as Hall of Fame worthy.

Married to racer Erin Crocker and father to two-year old Cate as well as 26-year old Ray J from his first marriage, Evernham now works as a consultant for Hendrick Motorsports and hosts the popular Velocity network show, “AmeriCarna.”

“When I look at the guys that I’m in there with, it blows me away,’’ Evernham said, anticipating the heralded ceremony Friday night in Charlotte. “I have been for months, struggling to find the right words to describe it, which I still haven’t, and that will be a problem I guess Friday night if I don’t get those words completely.”

“I can tell you that it really truly just amazes me because I have never held myself in the same light as I hold a lot of those people. When you’re growing up, you’re thinking, ‘Man, if I could only be as smart as that guy, or if I could only ever be as good as that guy.'”

“Now going into the Hall of Fame with some of them, ahead of some of the others, it just totally blows me away.’’