CONCORD, N.C. – With Ray Evernham on the verge of being inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Friday evening, the three-time champion crew chief shared what he believes might just be his favorite moment of his career.
“I think it’s when we won the Darlington million in 1997,” he revealed. “Because we worked really hard for that.”
Evernham recalled that the No. 24 team had tested its car for Darlington Raceway and didn’t like how it was performing. So, the team “cut the snout right off it” before putting on a new front.
“It still wasn’t fast enough,” the crew chief said.
The No. 24 team qualified seventh, but by Lap 72, Jeff Gordon had found the race lead. He held it for 44 laps before falling back in the pack.
“We hit the wall 52 times during the race,” Evernham laughed. “We made 16 or 17 pit stops. We were about out of nitrogen, borrowing tires from the 4 car. Jeff was worn out in the car, we were worn out in the pits. But we kept fighting and fighting and fighting.”
Entering that race, the No. 24 team had already won eight races in the 1997 season, and those wins included two of the sport’s four crown jewels – the Daytona 500 and the 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The other two “jewels” were the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. While a win had eluded Gordon at Talladega, a win at Darlington would give him three out of four, an achievement that would secure the coveted $1 million bonus.
With 72 laps remaining in that year’s Southern 500, Gordon raced back to the front of the pack, and he fought off a strong attempt at the lead by Jeff Burton down the stretch to capture the checkered flag – and the million dollars.
“When we took that car home, it was basically totaled,” Evernham recalled. “He had the front clip bent, the rear clip bent, the right-side door bars knocked out of it, the rear-end housing was bent. There no way that car should have finished the race, let alone won a million bucks.”
Still, the No. 24 Chevrolet did both, and it made for one of the crew chief’s favorite memories of his illustrious career.
But the main reason that race stood out the most was because of the fortitude everyone on the team showed that day.
“That day we won $1 million, we won that race at Darlington as a team,” Evernham explained. “I think that was one of our better days. That was one of the days that let us know that we didn't have to have the fastest car if we kept working. Everybody gave their best effort that day – Jeff as a driver, me as a crew chief, the team, the crew.
“That was one of the victories I can look back and say we really absolutely won because we had a great day together.”