CONCORD, N.C. – After an iconic career that spanned more than two decades, Jeff Gordon is set to join the legends of the sport in the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 2019.
With that in mind, we asked three men who played major roles in the success of the No. 24 team to reminisce about the early days of the “Rainbow Warriors” and what it was like to work with a driver the likes of Gordon.
Ray Evernham – a NASCAR Hall of Famer himself – served as the No. 24 team’s crew chief from Gordon’s NASCAR Cup Series debut in the final race of the 1992 season through 1999, winning three championships along the way. In all, Evernham and Gordon found Victory Lane a series-leading 47 times together in the 1990s, including two Daytona 500s and two Brickyard 400s, in addition to earning 30 pole positions, 116 top-five finishes and 140 top-10s.
Chad Knaus was with the No. 24 team from 1993 to 1997. During that span, he assumed a variety of duties, starting in the body shop as an assistant and gradually working his way through the ranks to the fabrication department. Eventually, he was placed in charge of body development and served as a tire changer on the pit crew, playing a key role in the No. 24 team’s first two championship runs.
Brian Whitesell – currently Hendrick Motorsports’ vice president of operations – was a team engineer during the No. 24 team’s explosion onto the scene in the 1990s. He then won two races as Gordon’s crew chief for the final seven events of the 1999 season and began serving as team manager prior to the 2000 campaign. He was part of the No. 24 team for all four of its championships.
Evernham kicked things off with one of his favorite memories from the 1998 season, when Gordon and the No. 24 team reeled off 13 wins – a feat no driver has matched in a single season since.
“Coming to the white flag off of (Turn) 4 at Atlanta, he comes on the radio and he says to us, ‘Watch this,’” the crew chief recalled. “(Dale) Jarrett’s leading, Mark (Martin) is here. And right in front of us, Jeff goes around the 6, in between the 6 and the 88, under the 88, back up in front and he’s leading by Turn 1.
“When I look back at really cool things, I still see that picture of him saying, ‘Watch this,’ and then zig-zagging between those two cars.”
With that, the stories began.
“The guys hated it when we showed up. They would hope that our transporter would break down and we wouldn’t make it to the racetrack.”Chad Knaus
In the extended chat, the trio discussed a wide range of topics, including winning the inaugural Brickyard 400, Gordon’s very first win after 600 miles at Charlotte, what Gordon was like on the radio and when they first realized they had a true superstar behind the wheel.
“It was fun,” Knaus said. “The guys hated it when we showed up. They would hope that our transporter would break down and we wouldn’t make it to the racetrack.”
“That’s because we had to race them to the gate, we had to race them to get the tailgate down, race them through inspection, race them to the fuel pump,” Evernham laughed. “We had to win everything.”
The men swapped stories from Gordon’s first Daytona 500 win, which was part of a one-two-three finish for Hendrick Motorsports. They discussed what it was like to travel to racetracks back before Google maps, a 1999 Darlington win that was memorable for what the team overcame, a unique decal above Gordon’s locker and the impact he had on the early success of the No. 48 team as it was being built.
"He comes on the radio and he says to us, ‘Watch this.'"Ray Evernham
“The quantity of wins speaks for itself,” Whitesell said of what stood out the most to him about Gordon. “The mental toughness and just his ability to close the deal.”
They closed by discussing the crucial role Gordon played in taking NASCAR to a new level, but Evernham made sure to emphasize that Gordon’s legacy goes beyond his impact off the track and has just as much to do with how impressive his driving ability truly was.
“When the pressure got on, he just became a whole other person and was able to somehow get it done,” Evernham said. “When I look at what he was able to do inside that car, I just hope that people give him the credit that he deserves with the talent that he had.”
Watch the full chat – “Racing with Jeff Gordon: Stories from the Rainbow Warriors” – in the video above.