It used to be easy for Ray Evernham: Turn a wrench, change a shock and turn Jeff Gordon loose.
But Evernham packed up his toolbox and left the kind of success that seems to follow Gordon to lead Dodge back into stock car racing. What he's found, however, is winning a single race requires a lot more work that winning championships.
Worse yet, he's fighting the temptation to get back in the trenches. A tweak here, an adjustment there. It can't be this difficult.
''I had to learn what it takes to be a good car owner,'' he said after Team Dodge was shut out in the first half of the racing season. ''To be a good car owner, I've got to make sure that I'm letting my crew chiefs have the same space it took to do my job.
''The personal Ray Evernham touch is not on either race car, but I've got enough confidence in the two guys (crew chiefs Mike Ford and Sammy Johns) I have. I feel like I've taught them some things, but I feel like they've taught me some things, too. Sometimes when you take a step back, it can be better in the long run.''
Right now, it's pure frustration. After winning three championships with Gordon, Evernham thought it would be easy to make the Dodge Intrepid a winner on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. He was given 500 days to take a concept from the drawing board to the race track. The development, however, continues to be extended as Dodge figures out the nuances of every raceway on the circuit.
Evernham said the adjustment from crew chief to car owner has been difficult. The early struggles only compound his desire to roll up his sleeves and help. But for now, he's needed elsewhere.
''Probably I've made the mistake of meddling sometimes when I shouldn't have, and it's hard,'' he said. ''The first thing you want to do when you're not running where you think you should be running is jump back in to where you had a comfort level, and that's not really the right thing to do. To be a good crew chief, you've got to be 100 percent with that car. Period. You can't jump in and out.
''When I made my mind up that I wasn't going to do that any more, I needed to stand back and put as much effort into being a car owner as I did in becoming a crew chief. What I've got to do now is concentrate on the things that are going to make me a good car owner and hang out with the people.''
Gordon struggled last year without Evernham, and that sparked speculation that the key ingredient to their success was the crew chief. It created a whirlwind of attention and expectations for Dodge, which hadn't been on the circuit for 18 years.
Now that Gordon is leading the points and Evernham is struggling, the credit has moved back with the driver. Evernham now says Gordon didn't get nearly as much credit for their three championships as he should.
'' I did my job good. Jeff did his job great. I think I was a good crew chief. I was a part of that, but I was only a part of it, just like everybody else over there. Jeff is the biggest part of it, and sometimes he doesn't give himself enough credit. I did my job, and I feel proud of that."
Now he's looking to duplicate that magical combination of men, ideas and machines. He's made several changes, including at crew chief for Elliott's team. Once he finds that special blend of talent, then he's got to have the confidence to stand back and let them work.
''The hardest thing I think we've had to deal with is that we couldn't get what we wanted as quick,'' he said. ''I really feel like we've turned the corner now. The same philosophy and the same way I did things is starting to take shape, maybe with a little different twist on it.
Mike Ford and Sammy Johns are both very smart guys. I was running around the world for 10 years and you just get a little tired of doing that. If you can just take a few of the things I learned, I think Mike and Sammy could bring it to a new level, and maybe I could spend a little more time on the bus.''
Until then, all Ray Evernham can do is wait and watch. His job has never been more difficult.
REACH Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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