Thursday, Feb 02

Ray Evernham was a successful NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crew chief and car owner. Before becoming a car owner, Evernham was the crew chief for a very successful up and coming driver, Jeff Gordon. He is known as the man who “revolutionized the pit stop.”

Ray Evernham competed as a Crew Chief for Hendrick Motorsports from 1992 to 1999. Evernham was paired to future NASCAR Hall of Famer, Jeff Gordon. Evernham had 213 starts, 47 wins, and 30 poles as a crew chief. He guided Jeff Gordon to three championships in 1995, 1997, and 1998. Evernham won two Daytona 500’s in 1997 and 1999. Because of his expertise in the mechanical aspect, Evernham and his team revolutionized the pit stop. Each member of the pit crew had a specialized task and tried to perfect it by using choreography.

After his crew chief days, Evernham took to the ownership side of NASCAR in 2001. His move to the ownership brought Dodge back into NASCAR. The glory days of Evernham’s teams were when NASCAR Hall of Famer, Bill Elliott, drove for Evernham. Together, Elliott and Evernham won the 2002 Brickyard 400 in triumphant fashion, and won 13 times. Elliott Sadler and Kasey Kahne are notable drivers that have also driven under Evernham’s ownership. Unfortunately, in 2007, Evernham sold majority of his team and began work for NASCAR on ESPN.

Currently, Evernham is a consultant for the competition department at Hendrick Motorsports. Evernham is also the host of AmeriCarna on Velocity. 

Regardless of his victory on Sunday at the Atlanta Motor Speedway one thing has remained the same Jimmie Johnson is not in favor of the NASCAR point system.

Much to the delight of winning five consecutive championships from 2006 to 2010, then adding another in 2013, Johnson accomplished these feats in a 10-race post-season, with the driver producing the most points winning the title.

The last two years have come down to one race-- Homestead-- with four drivers having a shot at a title. In those two seasons, the No. 48 car has not been among the battle in the final race.

In 2014, it took two rounds to eliminate Johnson and co. from contention of a seventh title. However, in 2015, it was a five-dollar mechanical part in his drive line that took him out of contention of a championship at his best track, Dover.

Heading into that elimination race in Delaware, Johnson was fifth in the standings, 27 markers ahead of the cutoff. But on Lap 102, when that part broke, his hopes were shattered.

“The weirdness at Dover was a tough one to swallow,” Johnson told Speedway Digest. “Especially to be top three or five in points all season long and it all ended in that one race. But it’s part of it and I’ve not been a big fan of it, but what I am a fan of is full grandstands. Our sport needs to be strong and healthy and I’m willing to not worry what’s best for me and worry for what’s best for our sport.”

Though the six-time champion is willing to take a back seat to NASCAR in terms of the growth of the sport, obviously he still wants to be at the top of his sport. And at 40 years old, posting 76 career victories, he will go down on the Mount Rushmore of NASCAR drivers.

If he had gotten through Dover, advancing into the next round, he still had trouble at Charlotte the following week. Thus, he wouldn’t have made the next round of the Chase since he would have needed to record a victory and failed to do so at Kansas or Talladega.

With all of the accolades that Johnson has accomplished in his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports, what else is there to prove?

He has been outspoken about wanting to be triumphant with the new points system. To get to Homestead, he knows that he needs to maintain the pace that the team sets throughout the regular season.

It marks two consecutive seasons when the No. 48 team has clinched a spot in the Chase at the second race of the season. Now that he has qualified for his 13th consecutive Chase, Johnson knows that his team needs to keep up and not fall behind at all throughout the season.

“I think in 2014 we just didn’t have it, so that was on us,” Johnson said. “In 2015, I think we would have been one of the final four if we didn’t have Dover and the Charlotte thing.”

Even if it was a down year for one of NASCAR’s elite teams, Johnson still finished the season with five victories, 14 top fives and 22 top-10 finishes. But since NASCAR has gone to this new system in 2014, he has had the worst two points finishes of his career with a 10th and 11th.

There is reason to believe that the No. 48 car will be dominant again this season with a victory at Atlanta and leading 70 laps in the first two races. Last season Johnson led 558 laps all season long, which is the least since 2006 when he led 854, the last time he led under 1,000 laps in a season.

Even though he just tied Dale Earnhardt with 76 career victories, Johnson has just one goal for 2016.

“I look at it today and it’s such a different way to crown a champion than I won my six,” Johnson said. “My real goal is to be one of the four at Homestead and then it’s every man for them self.”

As he is just about every year, Johnson was one of the pre-season favorites to win the Sprint Cup title. Before the season began he was tied with Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth for second in Las Vegas betting odds of claiming his seventh Cup title, only behind Kevin Harvick.

If the odds were in his favor, then by Vegas standards he would be among the final four when it comes to the 36th and final race of the season. Much like people that bet on him, he also believes that Hendrick Motorsports will be tough to beat in 2016.

“This team is capable of amazing things, without a doubt,” Johnson said. “With what I’ve seen over the off-season, I feel not only the No. 48 team but all four cars at Hendrick Motorsports are going in the right direction.”

As the Cup Series heads to Las Vegas it is an opportunity that he has to pick up his second victory of the season and his fifth at the 1.5-mile speedway. With a win next Sunday, the No. 48 team will solidify itself as quite possibly the team to beat in 2016.

Taking over the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet in 2016 is 20-year-old Chase Elliott. Imagine that, just two years out of high school and taking over the ride from NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon.

In 2014, his first full-time NASCAR season, Elliott went out and dominated the NASCAR XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports. He won three races, the most out of all of the XFINITY Series regulars, and secured 42 more points than his closest competitor and teammate Regan Smith.

During the 2015 season, Elliott ran up front for the majority of the year, but was unable to win back-to-back championships. Overall, he had 27 top-10 finishes, more than he had in his championship-winning season. But outside of his win at Richmond in September, he struggled to run as the leader on a consistent basis, leading 236 laps, down from 390 in 2014.

Like all rookies, Elliott will have some bumps in the road in his first full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series. Joining Elliott as first-year drivers are Brian Scott, Chris Buescher, Jeffery Earnhardt and Ryan Blaney.

Each have a different story behind them, but Elliott’s is the most significant. If he fails in his first campaign, questions will be raised about whether or not he is the right driver to replace Gordon in the elite ride.

One thing is certain, Rick Hendrick believes so.

 It seems like ages ago now that Hendrick put Elliott into some of his equipment, but in reality it was only five years ago and he was just 15 years old. Hendrick is the one who basically told Dale Earnhardt, Jr. that he needed him to fill a position at JR Motorsports, before he had ever even raced in an XFINITY Series event. The legendary team owner believes in the kid, like he does all of his drivers.

The 2016 Sunoco Rookie of the Year class looks to be one of the best in recent years. Sure, there was the rookie class in 2014 that was made up of Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and others. But in terms of raw talent, this one could compete against it as arguably a better overall class, and possibly one of the strongest in recent memory.

One of the obvious goals for the No. 24 team in 2016 is to win the Rookie of the Year Award, something that the team hasn’t faced since the 1993 season when Gordon was a rookie as a part of the “Rainbow Warriors.”

“All of them, I’m sure, I really don’t know,” Elliott told Speedway Digest as to who his biggest threat will be for the award. “I think that there are a lot of good teams and drivers that are going to be hard to beat on that side. But as I’ve said before, if we can go and be the team that we want to be and if I can go and try to do the job that I expect of myself, I think the rest will kind of take care of itself.”

Elliott will be teaming with some of the sport’s best. Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 26-time Cup winner Earnhardt and a resurged Kasey Kahne.  

There are other team goals for 2016. Of course, a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth is always a necessity. Since the Chase was implemented in 2004, the No. 24 car has only missed out on the playoffs one time, back in 2005 and has finished in the top 10 in points 22 out of the last 23 seasons.

In order to qualify the Chase, Elliott would most likely need to win a race. A few playoff berths will be given out to the highest drivers in the standings without a win, but a win essentially assures a chance to compete for the championship.

Elliott is not worried about his rookie competition. It’s not that he thinks NASCAR should engrave his name on the trophy now, but the fact that worrying about his competition could always cause turmoil. If he goes out and drives his style, everything will take care of itself.

“I’m definitely not going to show up to the racetrack each week and worry about what the other rookies are doing because I think you’re going to have to focus a lot,” Elliott said. “That’s definitely not going to be my main concern when I show up each week.”

On his down time, Elliott could be seen with one of his closest competitors and rivals in Blaney.  The two have become good friends as they’ve grown up together, though they sit a couple years a part in terms of age. Their fathers have cemented a legacy in which the two youngsters will look to better and add onto the legacy of their last name.

Elliott stated that he doesn’t have a great relationship with any of the rookies except for Blaney. As both drivers have progressed through the ranks of NASCAR, they’ve been able to have a real bond off the track.

“I guess the only other one that I really know or talk to any is Ryan Blaney,” he said. “We’re good friends and he’s really the only one of the rookie guys that I even know at all.”

By many, Elliott is the pre-season favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award and begin his legacy inside of the No. 24 car. If all goes well for him, he will put check marks next to all of his goals at season’s end and call it a successful rookie campaign.

Track time will be important for the team. In five career Cup races, Elliott has experienced some difficulty with a best finish of 16th and an average result of 26.2.

When Kasey Kahne made the move over to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, it was the best career move he had ever made in NASCAR. He was joining a team that had won five out of the last six championships, and in 2011, Hendrick equipment took home the title. It seemed like he was entering a wonderland and the perfect ride to elevate his career.

That wonderland came to a screeching halt this past season when Kahne struggled on the racetrack and was visibly frustrated after missing the Chase for the first time in four seasons as the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet.

Kahne is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he recorded just three top-five finishes. His top 10 total was down from 11, to 10 in 2015, his lowest since 2010, when he was a part of Richard Petty Motorsports.

But for Kahne, a driver who came into the sport with such high regard and excelled rather quickly, there is no real reasoning as to why he has fallen off the radar. He has been in the same shop as four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon over the past four seasons, and on the same team as six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and multiple race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. 

The No. 5 team hit rock bottom in 2015. After re-aligning himself with former team engineer, Keith Rodden, the team was destined to have instant success, especially with how Rodden elevated Jamie McMurray just a year prior at Chip Ganassi Racing.

In 2015, he lead a career low 66 laps. He also had three DNF’s including a scary incident at Pocono in which he crashed into the pit wall, scurrying members from AJ Allmendinger’s team. But for the majority of the season he was irrelevant when it came to running up front.

“There are different areas that we as a team needed to work on, so we worked on those positions and spots,” Kahne said of changes that occurred over the off-season. “We changed a few people around that we feel will be better for our team morale. Some of the things that I look for in a car and then the other thing is just enjoying what we get to do again.”

Kahne made it clear that last season was the worst he felt inside of a racecar as he was never comfortable on track. He wasn’t able to enjoy the success that his teammates did, all winning a race. It really put his personal morale and the entire team morale down. With racing over the off-season, he believes it will be an increase in momentum heading into 2016.

“I think by going over and racing my Sprint car and racing midgets and doing things over the off-season that I’ve wanted to do for a long period of time kind of was able to start over in a way and feel good about racing cars,” he said. “I think that helped me in the way that I approached this off-season”

2016 will be all about regaining confidence that the Washington native once had. He was unable to gain consistency throughout 2015 and really through his tenure with Hendrick Motorsports. Sure, he finished fourth in the point standings in 2012, but still needed one of the Wild Card positions to make the Chase.

Since joining one of the top teams in motorsports, Kahne was taken the checkered flag, five times. Compare his first four seasons at HMS to his previous four years with other teams, the amount of wins are the same. Even in qualifying the numbers are down as the No. 5 team has only sat on one pole in the last three years.

Change was needed for the new season. Kahne needed a new mindset, and a clear slate before the Daytona 500. With the recent birth of his son, Tanner, Kahne will look to enter the new year with even more of a reason to perform.

He is under contract with HMS through the 2018 season. He doesn’t have to race for his job, but for himself wants to be successful or else he would have a different job. There is so much left for him to achieve inside of a racecar and the first step might be racing more throughout the season.

With recently getting back into a Sprint car, it has urged him to want to race more. He wants to race for his Sprint car team throughout the NASCAR season, if allowed by Rick Hendrick.

Since the death of his friend Jason Leffler in 2013, Kahne has done very little to no dirt racing. In part it was because Farmers Insurance and Hendrick Motorsports didn’t allow him the opportunity to compete outside of NASCAR. With the recent resurgence on dirt, Kahne seems to be amped up heading into the new racing campaign.

Kahne knows that the team needs to be improved if they are to have any success in 2016. The team has been partially rebuilt, and it will be the second season that Rodden and he have worked together as driver and crew chief. The chemistry needs to improve, but he believes that they can outperform from their 2015 numbers.

“As a team we need faster cars,” he said. “It’s not that it’s not all there, it’s what we are putting on the track and what I’m driving and the way I’m driving. The speed’s not there. There are times when I was as fast as anyone this year, but not near enough.

“I want to be at the front for practice, qualifying and reach each week, not just three times a year. We’re better than that and our cars, our team, everybody is better than that.”

Kahne has a history of being on the Chase bubble heading into Richmond, if the team has better equipment, and prepares like every week is its last there is no telling what this team can do. Take for example the 2014 season where it took him until Atlanta to lock himself into the Chase, two races prior to the point reset.

Driving for Hendrick Motorsports, there are no excuses. Kahne needs to achieve success in 2016 or else his first five years with HMS could be called a bust.  

A relationship between driver and crew chief is a determining factor of how successful a race team can be. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had several different leaders on his pit box throughout his career. However, his chemistry with crew chief Greg Ives in their first year together seems to have led him to become his team leader for the immediate future.  

In 2015, Ives led Earnhardt to three victories in the duo’s first season together. The No. 88 team took the checkered flag at Talladega in the spring, Daytona in July and Phoenix in the fall. Though the chemistry grew as the season went on, Earnhardt still came up short and failed to make it out of the Contender Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

At Talladega in October, Earnhardt lost out on a controversial green-white-checkered restart when the “big one” occurred just past the start-finish line, thus handing the victory to Joey Logano as NASCAR had to go back and look at the final scoring loop before the caution flag waved.

Even though Earnhardt wasn’t able to advance out of the second round in the Chase for the second-consecutive season, he is a big believer in Ives and the job that he does atop the pit box. The former No. 48 team engineer and XFINITY Series championship crew chief had big shoes to fill after former crew chief Steve Letarte made the move to the broadcast booth for NBC.

 “He was a rookie and probably had a lot of nervous, maybe not doubts, but just being that guy,” Earnhardt told Speedway Digest at the NASCAR Media Tour. “He’s been in that situation, but he never really had to have control over everyone and so much responsibility with so many people looking at him to make the decisions.”

The relationship resulted in career-tying statistics for Earnhardt. The No. 88 had 16 top fives and accumulated 22 top-10 finishes in 2015, which each tied previous marks he set in both categories.

Arguably, Earnhardt’s best season came in 2004 when he worked with his cousin, Tony Eury Jr. The team picked up six wins and 16 top-five finishes, tying his benchmark record of last season. In 2013, he never took the checkered flag first, but picked up then a career-high 22 top 10s. It was in 2015 when Earnhardt, led by a first-year crew chief tied these numbers and led 287 laps in the process down from over 300 laps led in each of the previous three seasons.

When Earnhardt drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. he was feared on the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. Outside of winning the 2014 Daytona 500, Earnhardt hadn’t won a plate race in 11 years. There was a time when the No. 8, Earnhardt’s former number won four straight races at Talladega spanning from the fall of 2001 to the spring of 2003.

Comparing those numbers to 2015, Earnhardt won two races on the plate tracks. He was at his best inside of a racecar when he was running up front at plate tracks, more importantly winning.

“He’s got a year under his belt and I’m thinking he’s going to go into this year a lot more confident,” Earnhardt said of Ives. “He knows what he’s got to do, he knows what he has at his finger tips and he knows what his job is. He came in kind of mid-offseason last year, so he’s got some time with the guys this offseason to prepare us for Daytona. I look forward to being strong.”

More experience will most likely lead to better results. The 26-time race winner is still looking for his alluded first Cup championship. Driving for Hendrick Motorsports in general leads to more pressure as the organization has won 11 titles in NASCAR’s premier series.

His racecars come out of the same shop as six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, and with the fact that Ives is a former engineer on Johnson’s racecar, Chad Knaus and he have a tight relationship.

As Ives prepares for his second season of leading the No. 88 team, there is no doubt that the pressure remains intact as Earnhardt’s crew chief. If the team gets off to a slow start, the fans will start to wonder why, and ultimately question Ives’ decision-making. The good thing for “Junior Nation” is that Earnhardt has never had a better first season with another crew chief. In his rookie season he found victory lane on two occasions, but struggled with consistency. It took years before Letarte and he clicked and started winning races. It only took the first-year combination 10 races to find victory lane.

With the current Chase format, one win all but guarantees a position into the race for the championship. The No. 88 team has a total of seven wins in the last two seasons, which has allowed them to test out new engines and setups heading into the Chase since the pressure was off their shoulders after securing a victory early in the season.

Something new heading into the season is the pit crew changes at Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt is coming into a season where the majority of the road guys are newly acquainted with Ives. Change might be exactly what NASCAR’s most popular driver needs to win his first championship.

“We’re right there,” Earnhardt said. “We’re just outside of that bubble of the top-three or four. I’m just getting ready to come through it. I’m telling you man, we can do it this year.”

 There is no doubt that Earnhardt is confident heading into the new season and looks forward to getting back on the racetrack. The now 41-year-old is looking to be even more consistent then he has been over the past few seasons.

In order to win it all the team will need to get all of its bad luck and misfortunes out of the way before the Chase starts. Even though the current system is more favorable if a team is to have a bad race, Earnhardt doesn’t want to rely on having to win a race, like he has the past two years at Talladega.

2016 might be the best shot Earnhardt has ever had at winning a Cup title. The driver has never been more relaxed or comfortable with his personal life and it has translated over to the race track. In order to secure a championship, happiness and avoiding the distractions is the key. He even admitted that he had wished he’d settled down earlier in his life with fiancé Amy Reimann. 

The relationship between the driver and crew chief will look to increase to even a higher standard in 2016. Earnhardt’s pre-season attitude could go a long way in determining how far the team goes this year.


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