Now, crew revolt mars Gordon's run to the wire

On Motor Sports

November 07, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Jeff Gordon will, no doubt, be glad when this year is over.

Not that it would be considered a bad year for most Winston Cup drivers -- he leads the series in victories with seven and in pole positions, also with seven.

But for only the second time in five years, Gordon won't be the series champ. His longtime crew chief, Ray Evernham, has left for Dodge pastures. And now comes the announcement that five of the members of his vaunted "Rainbow Warrior" crew are leaving for the Robert Yates-owned Dale Jarrett team.

What's going on here?

Why would the core of Gordon's pit crew desert what has been the best team in the business and one that looks to have one of the brightest futures?

From the outside looking in, the first thought is money. The crewmen probably wanted more. And according to sources, they are going to get more. Yates reportedly pays among the best in the sport, a figure said to be $1,000 per man, per race. And he pays it weekly.

While the Rick Hendrick-owned team is said to pay well, it hasn't been paying that well and it paid quarterly. Management is now said to be in the process of reassessing salaries.

Darren Jolly, one of the departing tire carriers, told "RPM 2night" this week: "It's just time to make a move. We wanted to see how another organization operated."

There was talk this season, before Evernham left the Gordon team, that Evernham had created an uncomfortable work atmosphere on the Hendrick-owned team because of his intense work habits.

The intensity obviously produced fine results and anyone listening in on the team's radio communications in a time of trouble knows that Evernham coordinated his pit crew like a symphony. But that doesn't necessarily mean everyone liked it.

As long as a year ago, Mike Mulhern of the Winston-Salem Journal reported that one of Gordon's crewmen "had offered [another team] to set up a specialized over-the-wall crew for $12,000 a race." As Mulhern pointed out, that would be $400,000 a year over the course of a 34-race season.

What's happening now doesn't appear to be that deal. But, sources close to the current situation say the five who are leaving Gordon -- Barry Muse (jack man), Mike Trower (front tire changer), Kevin Gilman (rear tire changer), Jeff Knight (tire changer) and Jolly (tire changer) -- approached both Yates and car owner Joe Gibbs earlier this season.

Information leaking from around the Hendrick-owned team is that Muse was on shaky ground, about to be fired when he began organizing the Rainbow Warrior Five into revolt.

And Yates says: "This opportunity was presented to us earlier this year, and after much thought between myself, Todd [Parrott, crew chief] and Dale [Jarrett], we elected to take advantage of it. This sport has been driven to the point where every situation tends to get more specialized."

He added these five crewmen will allow his own people to "concentrate on doing what they are assigned to do" better in the garage.

It also is being said that the Hendrick-owned team was "furious" when Yates made his announcement.

The anger stemmed from at least two wells: the timing and the perceived theft of talent. Why further disrupt the Gordon team by making the announcement with just three races left in the season? Hendrick's people see this as both a mean-spirited act toward them and a rather stupid one on Yates' part, as he seems to be insulting his own, current pit crew as it heads toward the team's first title.

As for the second part, these apparently are not the first crewmen Yates has raided from Gordon's team.

But no one should be surprised by the raiding of good men; that's the way of racing. Junior Johnson often lamented that he trained engine builders (and Yates was one of them) and crewmen only to see his ideas stolen by other teams who hired his people away when they had reached the top of their game.

Heck, even Gibbs has a vivid memory of Yates stealing his driver from right under his nose. That would be Jarrett, the man currently in line to replace Gordon as Winston Cup champion.

Another point of light

Before any crew defections, there were those who believed the chemistry on Gordon's team was beginning to suffer because Gordon didn't come to the team's workshop every day.

It's a little unfair, given most top drivers no longer show up daily at their team garages. But the mean-spirited would laugh wryly and say, "Yeah, Jeff is always fast to thank his `Rainbow Warriors' for his victories, but does he know who they are? Could he name them?"

So, when the Winston Cup teams were in Dover, Del., in September, I asked him.

"Can I name them?" he said. "That's a good question to ask any driver about his crew. There's a lot of turnover. I can name most of them."

There was a pause.

"Do you want me to name them?" he asked.

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