Gordon's crew chief to quit?

Evernham reportedly ready to leave team

September 25, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. -- A Winston Cup garage can be like a witch's caldron when rumors are in play. And yesterday, at Dover International Speedway, one of the most tantalizing rumors of the year was in the air.

Three-time champion Jeff Gordon's crew chief, Ray Evernham, is said to be quitting. The rumor was circulating in the morning, and by afternoon, CNN/SI was reporting the chief engineer, Brian Whitesell, will be replacing Evernham at the end of the season.

Not even Rusty Wallace's track-record qualifying speed of 159.964 mph, which earned him the pole for tomorrow's MNBA 400 Winston Cup race, could disrupt the interest in Gordon, Evernham and the Rick Hendrick-owned team.

Only Wallace, who also won the pole last weekend in Richmond, Va., was really thrilled, and even he had reservations.

"I told 'em, I'd trade all those poles we had for some more wins," said Wallace, who has won four poles this season but only one race. "We've just gotta get some more wins right now. But the car has been really strong in qualifying. We've got that worked out."

Wallace's Ford beat the previous track record, set in June by Bobby Labonte, by .644 mph. Jerry Nadeau earned the outside pole for tomorrow's race with a run of 159.879 mph.

When Gordon came in from his seventh-place qualifying run, a mass of reporters encircled him.

"Is Brian Whitesell replacing Ray?" he was asked.

"I wish I had a comment," Gordon said. "I just don't have a comment on Ray right now. I am working with Brian here. But the plan all along has been to take our guys and step them up in our program. That's been Ray's wishes all along."

In fact, it has been Evernham's wish to grow beyond his job as crew chief that has led to the current situation and some friction within Hendrick Motorsports.

For at least two years, Evernham has said he wanted to move into the role of general manager for Hendrick and be able to spend more time at home with his family. But two years ago, Hendrick was convicted on one count of mail fraud in relation to his Honda dealerships and put under house arrest for a year. At the same time, he was diagnosed with leukemia, and his brother John stepped in as president and assumed general manager's duties -- putting another layer of management between Evernham and his desire.

There are also rumors that Chrysler is planning a return to NASCAR in 2001 and has approached Evernham to head the team.

And, some think Evernham, who is already believed to be the top-paid crew chief at well over $1 million, is threatening to leave to test his value to the organization he helped build. Before Evernham and Gordon showed up, Hendrick Motorsports had been a respectable organization with the late Tim Richmond and finished runner-up for the title with Ricky Rudd in 1991.

But Gordon and Evernham have won three of the past four Winston Cup Titles, and their teammate, Terry Labonte, won the year they didn't.

CNN/SI reported -- without naming sources -- that Gordon was about to sign a long-term deal with Hendrick that includes part ownership in the three Hendrick teams and that negotiations are under way to get Evernham released from his contract, which runs through 2006.

Yesterday, John Hendrick added nothing to a statement he made earlier this week.

"Ray Evernham has a contract with Hendrick Motorsports that runs through 2006," Hendrick said. "We have no comment beyond that at this time."

Evernham, seeing a reporter approaching for a countless time, grinned.

"No," he said. "Don't ask."

"Are you leaving?"

"No comment."

"Is Brian Whitesell replacing you?"

"No comment," he said. "Don't ask."

Few in the Winston Cup garages seem ready to believe Evernham is on his way out.

"I think it's just like Ray said a while back," said Bill Davis, owner of the Ward Burton team. "Ray said, `I've been on top of that tool box long enough.' It may very well be that he just wants a better situation, more responsibility -- a different challenge."

Jack Rousch, owner of five Winston Cup teams, including the one driven by Jeff Burton, believes if Hendrick is a good a businessman, he won't let Evernham escape.

"He appears to be at the top of his game at the race track and doing a great job with Jeff," Rousch said. "But bright people like challenges. I'd try to find him his next job within my organization. The challenge for me would be to match career opportunities with the rate of people's growth. That's the challenge -- to mature, advance and carry on the continuity."

With nearly everyone on the team choosing to answer questions with "no comment," it is difficult to know what's really going on inside the Hendrick team.

Late yesterday, Evernham, Gordon and Whitesell were seen with their heads together near the No. 24 race car sharing a good laugh.

"Things are very complicated," said Randy Dorton, head engine builder for the team. "Ray has got a contract. Ray is here this weekend. I can't believe Ray would up and quit."

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