Remember the Dynamic Duo: Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
What's Ray Evernham up to now?
It's been almost 14 years now since Ray Evernham's last race as Jeff Gordon's crew chief....almost six years since his last official race as NASCAR team owner....
After 47 tour wins and three championships with Gordon and Rick Hendrick, Evernham moved on to head up the Dodge revival in late 1999.
After nearly seven years as Dodge's big man in NASCAR, Evernham sold to George Gillett and moved on.
Now he's back with Hendrick, here proudly wearing one of those monogrammed Hendrick Motorsports dress shirts, and he's working on a variety of projects, while keeping a face in the sport as TV commentator.
His latest project is a new TV series, which he is making the rounds promoting its pending launch.
But, hey, about this Dodge stuff...
With a flurry of rumors about Dodge officials mulling over how to make a return to NASCAR, maybe Evernham can offer some insight.
How long would it take for Dodge to crank things back up again over here?
"They made me do it in only 500 days," Evernham recalls with a laugh, "and I didn't have anything to start with.
"It would be a lot easier to do it now. Because Dodge has a good motor; Roger Penske has plans to make that motor good.
"Obviously the car development is not what it used to be; we really had to do a lot of stuff in 500 days.
"If Dodge said 'Go' today, they could be competitive in the Daytona 500 next year. I absolutely think so."
By Daytona, just seven months or so from now?
"Want to bet?" Evernham responds, with a grin. "Tell them to send me the check."
Ray Evernham and Kasey Kahne, back in the day (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
For a man whose fire-in-the-belly was amazing to watch, in his prime, Evernham has been reinventing himself these past few years.
After a legendary run with Gordon, from 1992 through late 1999, Evernham's call to take up the Dodge challenge was stunning. And it was filled with juicy controversies, and fun to enjoy.
He and Bill Elliott won the Daytona 500 pole right out of the box, in 2001. They got their first win at Homestead that fall, the first of four together. Then two wins with Jeremy Mayfield, and the tumultuous battle to sign Kasey Kahne, and their seven wins together.
But never the championship, Evernham's big goal. The closest, eighth with Kahne in 2006.
Evernham, now 55, has mellowed, hard as that may be to believe.
Once a firebrand, albeit with a cool, calculated approach, he has been working to develop a new niche in this sport since the Gillett package went sour, sometime in 2008. He sold majority interest in his anchor Dodge franchise in 2007 to Gillett, an international sportsman who got overextended with his various operations.
After that depressing endgame, Evernham at times seemed a bit lost, trying to regain his footing.
But now he has once again got things back together. And he's on a roll.
Evernham's anchor is a shop-and-museum about 20 miles from here, over near Lake Norman. It's got a cool 'period' restaurant -- Ray J's 55 Diner -- in the front, with a neat collection of race cars he's restored, and a vault of more than 25 exotic, muscle cars in the back.
He's seriously into automotive restorations, with 10 or so men working away on various projects: Evernham's latest, Marty Robbins' 777 Plymouth Belvedere, a 1964 Nashville Fairgrounds short track special.
Evernham has become a TV commentator, one of the best, to be honest, with a low-keyed demeanor.
He's still on Hendrick's roster, working a day or two a week over there.
And he polishes up well for the TV cameras too.... (Photo: ESPN)
And Evernham's newest venture is an upcoming NBC-Velocity Channel weekly series, 'AmeriCarna,' about some of the historic cars that helped shape American culture in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. It's a venture Evernham and Hendrick together are working on, with the first show January 28th. The segment with Junior Johnson on moonshiners and NASCAR should be particularly interesting.
"The show is about how the cars have affected American culture," he says. "We want to go back to the 1950s, '60s and '70s, when the car was more than just transportation.
"I do believe that part of our attendance drop in NASCAR is because the car today is just transportation, and there's not a lot of passion there.
"Hopefully we can bring out some of that passion....and even help sell some tickets on the NASCAR side."
Each car, Evernham says, "has to have a story. Like we just found Smokey Yunick's box truck, from 1956.
"We're not really a restoration shop; we're just trying to preserve racing history. We might work on anything from an old car to an old engine to an old sign."
Mr. Big Iron, at Nashville's famous Fairgrounds Speedway (Photo: Ray Evernham)
The restorative evolution of Robbins' stocker is interesting. It was originally built with a classic Hemi engine; but when NASCAR changed the rules in 1966, that engine had to go.
"The first thing you do, in restoring a car like this, is to take pictures of everything you've got, and figure out what you're missing. Then it's just a lot of research on the phone: 'this guy knows this guy, who thinks this piece is over here..,'" Evernham says. "The first several months are just doing researching. Paint codes, part numbers...
"The good thing about this car is Marty was the last one to drive it, so it still had his steering wheel and his seat and pedals. We actually found the same guy who lettered it in 1967 to re-letter it for us."
Evernham never knew Robbins himself, but he's worked with his son Ronny on this project. "I never knew Marty had so many hits...
"The car was actually unique when it was built -- they slid the car body back on the chassis nine inches....and it had two chassis put together. We kept looking at it, trying to figure out 'What the hell is this thing? How was it built?'
"Bobby Hamilton's grandfather was involved in building this car, which is pretty neat."
Evernham just finished working with Leonard Wood on a recent restoration of one of David Pearson's famous 21s.
"Leonard wants the car now.... but I'm afraid to give it to him, because he might want tweak it with improvements," Evernham says with a laugh.
"I think Leonard has some ideas on things he wished he'd done to the car 50 years ago."
Two legends (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)