Evernham Providing Positives for Hendrick Motorsports

by March 15, 2014

Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

BRISTOL, Tenn.  —  Leaving behind an analyst position with ESPN, three-time championship winning crew chief Ray Evernham has returned to the team that he helped dominate NASCAR in the 1990s, Hendrick Motorsports, as a consultant over the off-season.

Whatever mojo Evernham has brought to Hendrick Motorsports is clearly working. The Hendrick stable is off to their strongest start in several years as all four HMS drivers have opened their respective seasons with performances that either rival or are their best ever start to a season.

Drivers Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne all have gotten off to tremendous starts when looking from the perspective of their historical starts to a season. With the Sprint Cup Series heading to a track where all four drivers have won at in the past, the chances are looking great for them to extend their success.

With every team performing at such a strong level, one could attribute this resurgence of sorts to Evernham’s presence within the team structure.

Johnson, the six-time and defending champion, is likely benefitting the least from Evernham’s presence at HMS as his chemistry with crew chief Chad Knaus has always been rock solid. Teammates Earnhardt, Gordon, and Kahne on the other hand have clearly made gains since Evernham re-joined the team.

Earnhardt thus far is on pace to have a career year. Last season, Earnhardt got off to his quickest start ever in his career by finishing in the top-seven in his first three races. One year later and Earnhardt has one-upped himself. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has now finished in the top-two in all three races thus far this season; he’s also carrying over momentum from 2013 as he has now recorded eight straight top-10s if you include last year’s results.

The last time Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 in 2004 he went on to have a fantastic year, winning six races along with earning a then career-high of 16 top-five finishes by year’s end. It has been 10 long years since Earnhardt’s last multi-win season; with his current form and the fact that Bristol is statistically his best race track, he could confirm himself a spot in the Chase should he win on Sunday.

Four-time champion Gordon has achieved a feat that he has only done in two prior seasons in his illustrious career – finish the first three races of the season in the top-10. Gordon is off to his fastest start in the Sprint Cup Series since 2007 and he heads to a race track that he has won on five times in his career. Evernham partnered with Gordon to win four straight Food City 500s from 1995 to 1998; with the two working under the same roof again, Gordon might be able to earn his first Bristol victory since 2002.

The statistics show that the two previous times that Gordon has opened his season with three top-10s, he has gone on to have spectacular years. In both 1997 and 2007, he went on to have five or more wins and finished 2007 second in points while he won the championship a decade earlier.

Kahne, driver of the No. 5 car, has never been known for kicking his seasons off with hot starts; the best start to a season he’s had in his career was in his rookie season with Evernham’s own team in 2004. That year, Kahne finished in the Daytona 500 41st but drove his way to three straight top-threes in the next three races.

In comparison, in Kahne’s strongest season of 2012, he did not score a single top-10 finish until the seventh race of the season. The No. 5 team is off to a quicker than usual start with two top-11 finishes coming after a 31st place finish in the Daytona 500. 9 of Kahne’s 16 career victories came while driving for Evernham from 2004 to 2008; with Kahne heading back to the race he won at last year with momentum on his side and with his former team owner working with him again, we could see the No. 5 car in victory lane again this weekend.

Six-time champion Johnson has continued his championship form into the new season, turning in top-six finishes in each race this year. Johnson has done this on three other occasions in 2005, 2006, and 2013. In two of those three years he has won the championship. While Bristol is not one of Johnson’s best tracks in terms of results, he does have a victory here that came in 2010’s Food City 500.

After qualifying on Friday, all four Hendrick cars will be starting from the top-14, the highest qualifier being Gordon with a sixth-place grid position. With seven of the last 10 Bristol winners coming from starting spots within the top-14, Rick Hendrick must be liking his chances to get to victory lane for the second time this year with four past Bristol winners driving his cars.

With the team as a whole off to a fantastic start to this season after three events, the future is looking bright both for this weekend and the rest of the season for Hendrick Motorsports. Sunday provides them with an excellent opportunity to further their momentum.

As for just how far Evernham’s consulting can take this organization in 2014, the answer could be based off of the results of this Sunday’s race. Each of the four teams have shown their muscle at each track three weeks into the season, another week of strong results on a different style of track should make a Hendrick car the odds on favorite of winning the Sprint Cup Series championship yet again.