Bonkowski: Life goes on without Gordon

You couldn't blame Ray Evernham for privately gloating a little.

On a day Jeff Gordon could have -- in fact, should have -- clinched his fourth Winston Cup championship, Evernham stole the thunder from his former driver, who he had directed to three titles.

And what a sweet taste it was for Evernham, as Bill Elliott stole the show Sunday by winning the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead, Fla., giving Evernham his first win as a Winston Cup car owner.

"We saw Chip (Ganassi, team owner, who earned Dodge's first win when Sterling Marlin won at Michigan in August,) and Bill Davis (driver Ward Burton won in September at Darlington) get theirs, and we wanted to get ours," Evernham said.

While Elliott made Sunday's victory look both easy and difficult -- he started from the pole, but was then forced to come from behind to capture the checkered flag -- nearly a year of frustration and hard work finally paid off for Evernham. He is going for his second straight win in Sunday's NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway -- the same race Gordon will likely clinch the championship.

"I didn't get impatient," Evernham said. "I could see improvements, they were getting closer every week. Some days you get frustrated, but I could see progress and everything was going to come together."

But Ganassi's success with Marlin did gnaw at Evernham at times -- after all, it was Evernham who had shepherded Dodge's return to Winston Cup, who had started the overall "one-team" development program and who, by all logic, should have been the first to get to Victory Lane.

Yet, Evernham reached the winner's circle fourth, not first. He swallowed his pride and kept working as hard -- if not harder -- during the days he engineered Gordon to victories, championships and unparalleled success.

"I play to win, but you've also got to be realistic," Evernham said. "I'm not sick enough over it where I'm going to go stick my head in the sand. You've got to look at everything realistically. A year ago, I basically had nothing. On Dec. 10, we had two Dodges and had taken over Bill Elliott's facility.

"After we got our first round of cars built -- we built 14 cars in 15 weeks -- we were wiped out. April was just a killer month and I realized I had to concentrate on just getting things done. You can't even think about winning races until you get your program in order. We're worrying about winning races and we don't even have a car built for that racetrack."

Compounding the problem was that while Evernham paved the way for the other Dodge teams to take to the track, he was on his own once it came time to developing individual tasks, such as building a competitive engine program.

"Taking on an engine program and starting an engine shop and trying to start the two teams and doing the development for Dodge, it was a big job," Evernham said. "My goal through all this is to build a championship organization one step at a time. I couldn't see working really hard to put the proper people and cars together and getting close to a championship and then have something out of my control, like an engine program.

"I feel if you're going to have a championship program, you've got to bite the bullet and start with the foundation and the engine program is part of that. I'm very proud of my guys at the engine shop. They're certainly doing a good job. Their stuff is getting better and better.

Despite Elliott setting the NASCAR community on its ear after claiming the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500 in February -- Dodge's first race back in Cup competition after a nearly 20-year hiatus -- as the months followed, criticism began to build that Evernham made the wrong choices in who he put behind the wheel of of his two cars.

Yet, Evernham never lost faith in his pilots.

"They told me Bill Elliott was too old to win and that Casey Atwood was too young to win," Evernham said. "But I'll tell you what, it was only a matter of time before Bill Elliott was back in Victory Lane, and (Atwood) is going to be a superstar in Winston Cup one day. There's no doubt in my mind that he's going to be a Winston Cup champion.

"I see forward progress. I see our cars getting competitive. I see our pit stops doing really good. I see all the things taking place that will get us to Victory Lane. As long as I continue to see that, I can deal with it. If I was sitting here and we hadn't made any forward progress, I would probably be pulling my hair out. I know if we continue to work hard and do the things we're doing, it will come."

So, rather than worry about changing drivers, Evernham became introspective. By early May and with about 10 races under his belt as a car owner, he knew something wasn't right. It was time to start from scratch for a second time, analyzing every part of his operation, searching out the weak links and making necessary changes.

"I had to stop and realize I had the wrong target," Evernham said. "You can't start something from scratch with nothing and go, 'We're going to win our first year, we're going to do this and we're going to do that.' The targets I needed to be working on were making sure I had my aerodynamic program in place, making sure my engine is strong, making sure my pit crews are strong, making sure the crews are communicating and I've got the right engineering support.

"When I readjusted my goals, I felt we were on target. You can't just say I'm going to win five races next year. My targets now as car owner is making sure that my part of the equation -- engineering, engine, pit crew, cars -- those things are in line."

Yet, as good as he feels about finally getting his first win, Evernham knows there's still a lot of work left to get his team into the same category as Robert Yates, Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick and Ganassi.

"There's still some pretty big holes in our program," Evernham said. "We're still putting people in the right places. We've learned how to make the cars go fast at a couple of places but not consistently everywhere. Our pit crews are getting strong. Our engines are getting strong, but I feel like we've got a way to go before we're a weekly top-10 contender.

"I can't put a time limit on that. I don't know what it is. Something like that just starts clicking. It's a matter of getting people going or getting your skills going, but there's still some pretty big holes in our program. We seem to struggle at the banked tracks, the places I used to be really good at, the Atlantas, Charlottes, places like that. That bothers me, but again, those are things we've got to work on and I can't put a time limit on it. We're far from target, but we're making progress."

Evernham still has occasional thoughts about what might have happened if he had remained with Gordon as crew chief, but what Dodge presented was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity he couldn't pass up. However, it did come at a cost. After eight years of being not only co-workers but also friends with Gordon, Evernham's departure from Hendrick Motorsports left his relationship with Gordon somewhat distant.

Instead of best buddies, they're now competitors.

"I miss him as a friend, period," Evernham said. "You'd have to be a plain idiot not to want Jeff Gordon in your car. That's all I can tell you."

Yet Evernham can't stop to lament the fact he's gone one way and Gordon another. That's the inherent nature of the business.

"This is not a sport for weak people," Evernham said. "When you take on the deal I took on, you'd better be tough.

"You've got two choices in life. You make it or you don't. I just don't look at not making it. It might take me 20 years to get back to where I want to be. I'm doing it. I'm not going to whine and cry and say I used to win 10 races a year. It doesn't seem like anybody is winning 10 races a year now. I'm going to stick it out, and I know if I do the things I do, we'll get there."

Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com.