Evernhams Magic Returns

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -– As the crew chief for Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, Ray Evernham helped Hendrick Motorsports build a NASCAR Winston Cup dynasty.

Now his job is to do the same thing as one of the most prolific figures at Dodge in its celebrated return to the Winston Cup Series.

As the leader of Gordon’s DuPont Chevrolet team, Evernham and Gordon were a force to be reckoned with almost every weekend at the track. The duo combined to win three Winton Cup championships and nearly 50 races from 1993 until the fall of 1999.

Evernham’s announcement a little more than 18 months ago that he was leaving Gordon’s team took the racing world almost completely by surprise. The decision, however, was something Evernham said he felt was necessary to move on to another chapter of his racing career, and his life.

As if heading up the research and development efforts of the new Intrepid wasn’t enough of a task, Evernham is now faced with the personal endeavor of making his own two race teams into winners. He’ll rely on a veteran driver - Bill Elliott - and a young rookie - Casey Atwood - to help him do just that.

After all this time, Evernham said he’s still trying to adjust to the role of being a Winston Cup team owner. That means paying the bills and concerning himself with the financial aspect of things, as opposed to getting his hands dirty. He’s got crew chiefs Mike Ford (Elliott) and Patrick Donahue (Atwood) to do that for him.

“Being a crew chief and the team owner is not the same,” he said. “It's been difficult to get used to all of this. I don’t really know what to do except stand around and worry. They won’t let me work on the cars anymore. I’ve been trying to tell them things to help them without being hands-on.

“I’ve been telling them what to expect with the changes they've made and what’s going to happen on the track. My goal is to teach the guys enough so I can go do other things as a team owner.

"Motivating a young crew is tough. We’re a rookie team, and this is our first race. We have to be realistic on our expectations.”

Elliott and his No. 9 Dodge team surpassed many expectations already when he fashioned a lap of 183.565 mph to win the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500. Hooking up with Evernham could go a long way to reviving Elliott’s career, which has slumped over the past few years.

“Putting Ray into the mix has really helped the chemistry come together, and having Dodge behind you can’t hurt at all either,” Elliott said. “With all that, they’ve done a good job. They've done what they needed to do.”

Until Thursday’s Gatorade 125s, the chance existed that Evernham may have to watch Atwood, his talented rookie, sit on the sidelines for the Daytona 500. Atwood, however, finished 10th in his 125-mile qualifier and will start Sunday’s race from the 21st position.

“Casey did a great job,” said Evernham, who was the spotter for Atwood Thursday. “He just shows me every time he goes out there that he has experience beyond his years. He earned his way into that race. I'm very proud of that kid.”

Elliott isn’t doing too shabbily himself. Normally very quiet and reserved, Elliott has been in a very good mood this week, even though winning the pole for the biggest race of the season probably didn’t hurt matters too much.

“This is special, and we’re real encouraged because we have a good car to work with,” Elliott said. “Each year you come back and achieve a new goal and it’s a little more special about how things happen. When I got hooked up with (crew chief) Mike Ford last year, we went to Talladega and tested in January and we were the worst car here. We went back and did everything we had to do, and we came down here and qualified on the pole for the Daytona 500. We really went through a lot of hurdles to do that.

“To come back here and sit on the pole, I think it’s more deserving for these guys than it ever was for me. They’re the ones that have put in the dedication and effort week-in and week-out that’s made this program happen, plus Ray believing in us. The next step is all a part of making this a stronger, more organized race team, and that’s what it’s going to be all about.”

At 20, Atwood is still a bit in awe of his surroundings. The Antioch, Tenn., native spent two years in the Busch Series before Evernham decided to bring him up to the “major leagues.”

“This car is better than anything I’ve ever driven before in my life,” Atwood said. “We came here ready. It’s been a great week for Dodge with Intrepids filling the front row, and Bill getting the pole. It’s been a good week for Evernham Motorsports. Maybe we can put one of these Dodges in victory lane for the Daytona 500. I feel good about the 500.”

Maybe then, Evernham won’t have the weight of the world on his shoulders anymore. Maybe then, Evernham can take a moment to relax and revel in a decision that has turned his life completely around through the past 19 months.

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