CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ray Evernham still laughs when people claim the T-Rex Chevrolet that Jeff Gordon drove to victory in the 1997 Winston All-Star race was illegal.
"That car had no cheating on it," said Evernham, then Gordon's crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports. "That car was built by what the rules were, and it never became illegal until after The Winston when NASCAR wrote rules to make the car illegal."
The car in large part was the engineering marvel of Hendrick engineer Rex Stump, who at Evernham's request built a car that pushed the limit of every gray area in NASCAR's rulebook without crossing the line into cheating.
It single-handedly forced NASCAR to add several pages to its rulebook and sparked the engineering boom the sport enjoys today.
"Gary Nelson had seen the car as it was being built," Evernham said of the former director of NASCAR's premier series and initial developer of the Car of Tomorrow. "That car was perfectly legal until after The Winston, when other car owners complained and said they would have to build all new cars to keep up with that car.
"So NASCAR then rewrote a lot of rules to make that car illegal."
The car didn't consist of a lot of trick gadgets like those some of NASCAR's great cheaters were known to employ then and even today.
It was completely an engineering creation, from the way the rear springs and shocks were mounted to the raised door bars and front struts to the stiffness of the frame and the size of the tubing that allowed the floor pan to be raised inside the car a half inch.
"The rear suspension was different on the car, the way all the bracing was done and whatnot," Evernham recalled. "That car had what we called raised door bars and raised front struts.
"The chassis itself was built differently than our other stuff. But it wasn't cheating. There were no rules against it."
Evernham said a variation of the car actually had been used by other Hendrick drivers without much success.
"There were a couple of times people ran the car, and nobody really like it," Evernham said. "They just didn't give it what they wanted. I was kind of the guy that would try stuff for Rex.
Gary Nelson had seen the car as it was being built. That car was perfectly legal until after The Winston, when other car owners complained and said they would have to build all new cars to keep up with that car. So NASCAR then rewrote a lot of rules to make that car illegal.
"So we took the car to Charlotte and tested, tested and tested and happened to hit on something that made the car go really fast."
Evernham said the car was about a decade ahead of its time in terms of engineering.
"It used the bottom of the car for aerodynamics," he said. "Now, everybody gets the nose real close to the ground with the spoiler. That car could kind of do the same thing without having to do that.
"Rex started with a clean sheet of paper and built the car in the true sense of engineering the way the car should be built."
The car earned Evernham a reputation for pushing the gray area that continued into this season, when all three of his Evernham Motorsports cars were penalized after failing post-qualifying inspection for the Daytona 500 in February.
The car was so sophisticated that NASCAR seized it as an educational tool.
"I would say that Rex is really the guy that was ahead of the curve for engineering in the sport," said Evernham, who was fined $60,000 by NASCAR in 1995 for using illegal suspension parts on Gordon's car. "He started running simulations way before the other guys came on board.
"And that goes back to Rick [Hendrick] being willing to start an engineering department when nobody else would."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.