Jeff Gordon's crew chief is moving on to greener pastures
Jeff Gordon has long known that one day he would lose Ray Evernham, the only crew chief he has had in eight seasons with the Hendrick Motorsports team and a man largely responsible for Gordon's three Winston Cup championships over the past four years. Gordon just never knew when Evernham would go or what would lure him away.
Though no official announcement about those particulars had been made at week's end, team owner Rick Hendrick spent Monday trying to resolve Evernham's contract, which runs through 2006. The crew chief reportedly was poised to join a NASCAR effort being planned by automotive giant Daimler-Chrysler Corp. According to sources, Hendrick was considering granting Evernham his release with the stipulation that he not compete in NASCAR for a year and that he not hire any Hendrick employees.
Evernham is widely thought to have organizational and engineering talents far beyond his job description as a crew chief, which is why he might be chosen to help lead a NASCAR program at DaimlerChrysler Corp., the company born last year of the merger of Chrysler Corp. and Daimler-Benz, parent company of Mercedes-Benz. Sources within the company say that an announcement about DaimlerChrysler's NASCAR plans would be made in the next two months. The team would not begin to compete in Winston Cup before 2001. The Chrysler brands, Dodge and Plymouth, have been absent from NASCAR for 20 years. Chrysler enjoyed its last real success in NASCAR in the 1970s, when Richard Petty drove Chrysler cars to six Winston Cups.
If the deal materializes, there is a good chance that Evernham would have at his disposal the enormous technological resources of two British-based firms, Ilmor Engineering and Reynard, both of which have ties to Daimler-Chrysler. Ilmor builds the engines that power the McLaren-Mercedes Formula One team, which features defending F/1 world champion Mika Hakkinen. Reynard builds the cars that have powered Target-Ganassi racing to three consecutive CART championships. Developing NASCAR engines would be "a complete departure from the direction we're going in at the moment," said Paul Ray, Ilmor's vice president of U.S. operations. But, he conceded, "It would be extremely interesting to take on a project like that."
Evernham apparently agrees.
Unser Jr. Back in the 500?
Indianapolis Or Bust
Al Unser Jr. expects to race in next year's Indianapolis 500 for the first time in six years. Despite numerous reports that he was signed, sealed and delivered to the IRL, however, he still doesn't know whether he'll drive full time in the IRL or NASCAR in 2000. Unser, 117-year CART veteran who hasn't won a race since '95, learned in August that Roger Penske would not retain his services next season, and the 37-year-old driver couldn't close a deal with any other CART owner. One of the IRL owners with whom Unser has negotiated is Rick Galles, a former CART owner whose car he drove to the first of his two Indy 500 victories, in 1992. Unser has also talked with CART's Cal Wells, who is expected to add a NASCAR team to his stable next season.
" NASCAR drivers are making a lot of money with their merchandising," says Unser, "and to race in front of that many people [Winston Cup attendance averages 191,000 per event] is something that appeals to me. My first love is single-seat, open-wheel race cars, and I'm leaning toward that. But if the best deal that comes along has fenders on it, so be it."
Unser has proved himself in stock cars. He has a record 11 victories in the International Race of Champions Series, the 26-year-old event that pits drivers from CART, the IRL and NASCAR in equally outfitted stock cars. Unser also ran well early in the 1993 Daytona 500, his only NASCAR appearance, before being wrecked by his friend Dale Earnhardt.