CONCORD, N.C. – Long before Ray Evernham ever joined Hendrick Motorsports, he had a strong impression of Rick Hendrick.
“I had always heard he was a great guy and really cared about racing and winning,” Evernham said. “Obviously when I came here, that’s just the way it was – and still is.”
Evernham served as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief with Hendrick Motorsports from the final race of the 1992 season through the 1999 campaign. Along the way, he won three NASCAR Cup Series championships with the No. 24 team, including Hendrick’s very first Cup title in 1995.
“Being the crew chief and having the team to bring that first championship to him is always going to be special to me,” he said. “Jeff and I together are really proud of the fact that he took a chance on us, he gave us the opportunity, he supported us and we delivered for him.”
That unwavering support from Hendrick continued even when Evernham left Hendrick Motorsports to start his own organization.
“He’s been an advisor for me even at a time when I was his competition,” he said.
The time away gave him a glimpse into a different side of Hendrick – what it’s like to square off against the Hendrick Motorsports owner.
“He’s tenacious, he’s committed – he’s everything that you don’t want in a competitor,” he smiled. “He has the resources -- and if he doesn’t have them, he’ll get them.”
And when Evernham moved on from the competing venture?
“Then he welcomed me back here with open arms just so I could stay involved,” he said of Hendrick.
“Most people you meet in your life, at some point in your life, they’re going to disappoint you in some way, shape or form. I’ve known him 25 years and he’s never disappointed me.”
"My favorite trophy is my key card that gets me in and out of the gate here. It’s an honor to have that."Ray Evernham
That’s why, with Hendrick mere days away from being inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, it’s easy for Evernham to pick out his favorite memento from his career.
“I’m proud to wear a Hendrick shirt,” he said. “When people ask me, ‘What’s the biggest race you’ve ever won? What’s your favorite trophy?’ I tell them that my favorite trophy is my key card that gets me in and out of the gate here. It’s an honor to have that.
“When you look back at the heritage and what’s been accomplished here, what people have done and the commitment, and now watching Mr. H go into the Hall of Fame, you know that card is my most prized trophy.”
As for the Hall of Fame honor itself, there are many different ways to approach the qualifications. Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip said he looks strictly at the numbers. As for Evernham, he noted just how impressive Hendrick’s numbers are, but for him, the reason he belongs in the Hall goes beyond statistics.
“Look under his umbrella, look under his tree of the people he’s touched in this sport and how big that footprint is and then you realize it’s way bigger than even Hendrick Motorsports,” he said. “Take the record aside of the wins, the championships and all that, look at what he’s done for the sport in general and how much he’s responsible for the growth of it. To me, it’s a no-brainer.
“To me, it’s years later than it should have been, but thank God it’s happening this year.”