Like a wily poker player, NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick loves to play his cards close to the vest.
That’s why, when Hendrick last week named Jeff Gordon to become vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports—essentially the second-in-command to “Mr. H” and who will carry on the organization’s legacy once Hendrick eventually retires – the timing caught much of the NASCAR world by surprise.
Yet, it didn’t surprise the one person who Gordon is just as close to as he is to Hendrick, namely, Ray Evernham, who was Gordon’s crew chief from 1993 through most of the 1999 season.
Together, the pair combined to earn three of Gordon’s four NASCAR Cup championships, as well as half (47) of Gordon’s 93 career Cup wins. Gordon also is the longtime co-owner of the No. 48 team in the Hendrick Motorsports stable that brought about a record-tying seven Cup championships with Jimmie Johnson behind the wheel
When I interviewed Evernham for this week’s The Racing Beat podcast, which will post July 1, on most podcast platforms, the former five-star general of the legendary Rainbow Warriors applauded Hendrick and Gordon for their move to rejoin forces, ultimately assuring the eventual smooth transition of HMS as well as the continued success of the organization for many years to come.
“I can’t think of a better scenario for Hendrick Motorsports than that,” Evernham said. “I am so, so happy that that Jeff looked at his career, he had fun doing TV (on Fox), he did great, he was fantastic in it. But like I told him, this is where his life is supposed to be. He has been such a huge part of Hendrick Motorsports. He has been like a son to Rick Hendrick and for Rick Hambrick to make Jeff the highest member of Hendrick Motorsports and not be a member of the Hendrick family, just says tons about how much trust he has in Jeff and respect.
“I’ve told people for years, Jeff Gordon was a great race car driver. And great race car drivers, it’s not all about being brave, it’s about being smart. Jeff Gordon is smart. He is a very good leader, a very good leader. And he has a good measure. He’s always had a very high racing IQ. So I don’t think there could be a better person to lead the team over there. And he’s got some good people with him like (team president) Marshall Carlson, a ton of great people over there to help him.
“But Jeff being the face (of Hendrick Motorsports), and in sitting at the right hand of Mr. Hendrick, I think is fantastic. He’s going to do really well at this. And Jeff Gordon being in charge eventually over there at Hendrick Motorsports is going to help NASCAR too.”
Then, Evernham—who still does some consulting and advising to HMS—added with a laugh, “If I was 20 years younger, I’d be over there asking for a job, that’s how much I think about the guy.”
Throughout his career both behind the wheel and, more recently, behind a microphone, Gordon has always been a guy similar to Hendrick. Both are methodical and measured, both are idea guys and both are kind of Renaissance men, wise and very intelligent.
When Rick Hendrick eventually hands Jeff Gordon the keys to the kingdom, the latter will definitely take HMS and NASCAR to a whole new level.
“Jeff’s a good advisor,” Evernham said. “He’s got a good measure of things, he thinks differently. I’ve spent a good part of my life around the guy, we’ve been together for over 30 years. And seeing him grow from a kid to the person that he is now, he has always been very, very smart. A lot of that thought process comes from his stepdad, John Bickford, who I think is one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with.
“So, I was a little bit sad because I loved to see Jeff on TV, but I could not be more happier when I saw that he was stepping aside from TV to put sole focus on Hendrick Motorsports and take care of the people there and make sure it keeps going. It takes a strong personality.
“Mr. Hendrick, what he’s done over the years, is an incredible story. His journey, people assume it’s easy because he’s had a lot of money. But he didn’t always have a lot of money. He was trying to grow another business (auto dealerships), but he’s always made that race team a priority. And more importantly, he’s always made the people who work for that race team a priority, and I know Jeff will do the same thing. I’m really happy that they made that decision.”
And don’t be surprised if Gordon and Evernham potentially reunite, maybe even for just a one-time situation, with Evernham’s newest venture, the Camping World Superstar Racing Experience.
Can’t you just see it: Evernham as a “guest crew chief” and Gordon behind the wheel, back together again? They might have to move an SRX race to Daytona International Speedway to accommodate the crowd if that were ever to happen.
“I’d love to have Jeff hang out with us,” Evernham said with a smile. “He knows he has an open invitation to SRX, even if he just wants to come and play with one. But like me, I just don’t know how much time he’s going to be able to spend on his own playing.”
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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