Matt Yocum
News & Features
Formula One
News & Features
News & Features
News & Features
 Thursday, September 30
Rainbow Warriors face future without chief
By Matt Yocum
Special to

 It was Scarlet O'Hara, who said in Gone With The Wind, "Tomorrow is another day." That may be true, but if you're Jeff Gordon, tomorrow will not include his buddy Ray Evernham.

This weekend marks the first race that Ray Evernham will not be calling the shots for Gordon and orchestrating a possible win for the Rainbow Warriors. Evernham won't be in the pits for first time since the pair broke into Winston Cup together on Nov. 15, 1992.

Evernham left Hendrick Motorspots on Wednesday to pursue his own team next season and beyond, leaving Gordon to go forward without the only crew chief he's ever known in Winston Cup.

Ray Evernham
Jeff Gordon and crew chief Ray Evernham shared something special from the start of their partnership.

While the break up might not be on the level of Charles and Di, it could be compared to the Bulls of '98, and Farrah Fawcett leaving Charlie's Angel's in the 70's. We will not even touch on the two Darrens from Bewitch.

From Day 1, Evernham and Gordon had a special bond, a unique chemistry that some say only happens once a generation. The young open-wheel star carried a briefcase to their first meeting -- a test drive in a NASCAR Busch Series car. Inside the briefcase were racing magazines, a video game and a dream to drive fast and win stockcar races.

Gordon wore a driver suit that still had dirt and burns on it from an open-wheel wreck a few nights before. Evernham, a former IROC team manager, wondered what he got himself into. But when Gordon climbed behind the wheel of that Busch car, Evernham knew there was something special on the horizon.

What followed is well documented with champagne-stained trophies. In a less than seven seasons, the pair scored 47 victories and won three Winston Cup championships. The 24 team was the template for success that all others envied and attempted to emulate.

Change is a part of life, a part of sports, and especially a part of racing. Change is basically inevitable. The Evernham-Gordon saga is not the first time that members of a super team decided to go separate ways.

In 1981, it happened to Petty Enterprises -- NASCAR's all-time super team. Twenty-three years earlier, Dale Inman wrenched Richard Petty's first race car, an Oldsmobile, for his stockcar debut. A week later, the pair traveled to Toronto, Canada, for The King's first career Winston Cup start. They finished 17th.

Inman would win six Winston Cup championships with Petty, but after winning a seventh Daytona 500 with The King, Inman emotionally quit and quietly left the team. Inman's ties were not just professional, he had family ties. Inman is Richard Petty's cousin.

The departure of Evernham and his championship credentials will leave a void. How big or how small depends on how many Evernham deciples also wheel their tool boxes out the door and follow him to his next endeavor.

What does the breakup mean? On one level, it's a chance for everyone to see who can do what, without whom. It could be the defining moment of the 24 team. If the Evernham-less team does pick themselves up and carry on to win races and championships, it will be a credit to Evernham and the winning drive and team character he shaped and nurtured over the last seven years.

Gordon's new crew chief will be Brian Whitesell, a guy who followed Evernham to Hendrick Motorsports from Alan Kulwicki's team in '92. A guy who sat next to Evernham on the pit box for 216 races. A guy who won the Western Auto Mechanic of the year award in '97. And a guy, who last Friday, called the shots during practice and qualifying, while Evernham stood in the back ground, allowing Whitesell room to get his feet wet.

But Evernham was close enough if Whitesell needed advice. Friday, when the Winston Cup tour unloads in Martinsville, Va., all eyes will be on Whitesell. Competitors, fans, and media will be watching to see how the super team with "Superman" behind the wheel handles the turmoil and change.

As for Evernham, he will miss his first Winston Cup race in nearly seven years. He will watch the Martinsville race from his couch, not on top of a pitbox.

What will the Chief Rainbow Warrior do for an encore? Ray will try to build another NASCAR powerhouse from the ground up. Although nothing is official, this time he will attempt to do it as a part-owner. His partner is generating more speculation and controversy than the second shooter on the grassy knoll. Let's just say Joe Gibbs may not be the only former NFL coach in a Winston Cup garage next season.

Another thing to consider is Evernham's team possibly becoming part of Chrysler's supposed return to Winston Cup in the year 2001. The one fact, however, is nobody except Evernham knows all the details.

There is one item that is fact. On the wall in the No. 24 shop is a sign. It's the Rainbow Warrior check list. There are small orange check marks next to the first four lines. The lines read:

  • "From nobody to upstart."
  • "From upstart to contender."
  • "From contender to winner."
  • "From winner to champion."

    The fifth and final line may or may not ever be checked off. It consists of three short words:

  • "Champion to Dynasty."

    Some say Gordon and Evernham had already reached dynasty status. Those individuals on the 24 team weren't so sure. But if the Rainbow Warriors continue to win races and championships, they could someday check off the final line. If they do, it probably won't have the same feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction, because the guy who helped form one of stockcar racings' most prolific teams wasn't there for the entire ride.

    But the thing about dynasties are you never know how change will affect them.

    Bill Walsh left the 49ers, who continued to win Super Bowls with George Seifert. Pat Riley guided the Los Angeles Lakers to four NBA titles, only to leave a pretty good Lakers club behind. The Lakers haven't won a title since.

    Only history knows what the No. 24 team's next chapter will read like. But there are many more questions than answers as a result of auto racing's biggest breakup of the year.

    Evernham heads over the rainbow, leaves Hendrick Motorsports

    Martinsville has long list of unlikely winners