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Q and A with Ray Evernham - NASCAR on ESPN

Media Conference Call
Wednesday, February 15, 2012

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Ray Evernham
Earlier today, ESPN announced that three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion crew chief Ray Evernham was re-joining the network as a NASCAR analyst. Evernham conducted a media conference call to discuss his return to ESPN and the upcoming NASCAR season. A transcript of the call follows:

Q. - First off, is this just a one year thing and then you get to decide at the end of the year if you want to keep doing it?

RAY EVERNHAM:  No, we actually signed a multiyear agreement. 

Q. - And what did you miss about not working with ESPN and what are you looking forward to the most now that you're back? 

RAY EVERNHAM:  That's a great question. You know, ESPN provides that team effort. I really am a team based person. I love to work in groups, and I just enjoy the way they do things.  ESPN does a lot of things a lot like I like to do them. They're very organized; they're very efficient; they plan. And they do a really good job putting on a good show is their number one goal. But they've managed to do that and have a lot of fun, too. So I just was really comfortable with the group of people that I've known over there, not just on camera. It goes without saying Rusty (Wallace) and I are good friends. I know that's hard to believe because we used to want to fistfight all the time, and we still almost fistfight up there in the booth, but Brad (Daugherty) gets in between us. Just about everybody I've got to know over there I really consider friends, from the pit row reporters to the people that are behind the cameras and the production trucks, the people that you don't see. I feel like I'm part of a team, and it just feels good to be getting back with that group. 

Q. - Just wanted to ask you, just looking at the upcoming season, a lot of different driver/crew chief pairings this year.  Obviously this is a bottom line sport, so people are going to look at results, but when you look at these, what are things that you're going to look at in the different pairings?  What are things that you might be able to see or some things we might want to look at that might show us something more than what the result is, even if it's positive or negative?  How are you going to look at what is a good pairing between driver and crew chief with all the new ones this year beyond what happens with the finishing order? 

RAY EVERNHAM:  I think something key that we've all learned a little bit about is just listening to that communication on the radio because making a car go fast and going through practice, and they're actually going to have a little bit more help this year because there's going to be some data that they'll have that we never had access to. But the guys that can take a day that's not been a great day and turn that into something and do that consistently, because I think the cars are so close, and it's so competitive, that not everybody is going to have a great day. You're going to have those days that an average day may be your fifth or sixth place finish, but a bad day is now instead of maybe pulling that it's going to be a 15th or 20th, and you see these guys that can take a 15th or 20th place car and somehow manage to move it up in position or at least hold position without having a lot of panic on the radio. I think I'm going to be looking at the mental and the communication side of relationships because there's so many tools now to get these cars right, to get them faster, and there's so much I want to say there's pull down rigs and shaker rigs and the bodies have to be so close with the template that I still believe it's going to come down to that chemistry and communication. And that chemistry and communication starts with a driver and a crew chief, and that ends up going through the rest of the team. So probably on new pairings I'm going to be looking at that first. 

Q. - First of all, just want to ask you, the release made note of the fact that you needed a year to settle into the Hendrick Performance side of things.  Was that because you thought you might still get involved on the racing side of things, and did you have any contact with the racing team at all over the last year? 

RAY EVERNHAM:  Well, you know, it's because we didn't know, and we weren't really sure. What I didn't want to do is be a distraction to Hendrick Motorsports or to put ESPN in a compromising position. So all through this, this year, and through every move that we've made from taking the year off to coming back, I've stayed in close communication with Rich Feinberg (ESPN vice president) and Rick Hendrick about everything what was going on. Ultimately, as I have found my tempo and/or my position here, it really has nothing to do with the race team. Honestly, I have done nothing with their race team in my year being here. When I go into the race shop, I'm normally part of a tour or doing something with one of the groups or part of what we're doing from the Hendrick Performance side. And really that's the position that I wanted to be in. You know, Hendrick has gotten so big. He has just gotten so big with his automotive group and now this performance and some other things, you know, there's not a lot of overlap from businesses other than being in meetings. I've been in some meetings with key people from Hendrick Motorsports, but there were also Hendrick Automotive Group people in there and people from other aspects or other areas of the Hendrick company. To answer your question, it was more about not wanting to have to answer questions weekly of whether there was a conflict of interest, so we decided let's find out where we're at and make sure there's not a conflict of interest. And no, I really do not have any job function or have had much contact with the race teams other than a lot of the people that are here on the complex when I'm here, I've worked with in the past. So no different than seeing some old buds going to lunch here or there or catching up on some things. I don't even ask any questions, on purpose, really, because some things I just don't want to know. 

Q. - And the other thing is just about Daytona.  Obviously it's Danica Patrick's debut.  She comes into this having a lot of experience from having raced at Indy 500 where I'm sure the attention for her is going to be overwhelming next week, but I'm guessing she's already weathered that before.  Do you think she comes into this from the non-racing side and may be as well prepared as anybody making their debut, that she's faced this sort of stress and pressure before?

RAY EVERNHAM:  I think so. Sometimes the expectations of what Danica needs to accomplish are not fair to her. But I'm a fan. You know, I think she's a good driver. I think the girl can drive a race car, and I think that she really is pretty tough when it comes to handling a lot of the media pressure and fan pressure. I think she's as prepared as any other rookie coming through. You know, this is a girl who has tons of racing under her belt, from the go karts on up to the formula cars. She's raced at Indy, she's raced with the big guys, she's done the high speed racing, and she really impressed me in the second half of her Nationwide season. So yes, I think she's as prepared as any racer. Now, is that as prepared - most rookies struggle. They have a good day here and there, but it's still tough to go out as a rookie and win the Daytona 500. There's been some but very few. And I think that was Mario Andretti that I guess might have done that. But I am very impressed with her, and I just still caution everyone to give her a break and keep the expectations for her realistic. But I really applaud her for the way that she's handled things.  And again, she impressed me with the finishes that she had at the end of the second half of the 2011 season. 

Q. - Having to deal with a little bit about what you were discussing, driver/crew chief combinations, and maybe one that you might be uniquely positioned to offer some insight is just the combination between Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis.  They seem to have moved together through the years in Kasey's career.  Now that they're going to be going to Hendrick together, how important is that that those guys maintain the continuity, and can you speak to the career path that Kasey has been on to reach this point and now finally kind of realizing some stability? 

RAY EVERNHAM:  Well, first of all, I think that Kasey and Kenny both have a lot of the same personality traits. They're both pretty introverted now, and once you get them talking, they both can almost get to the point to where you can't shut them up in certain instances. But they're very introverted to get them talking.  But they're both very focused, and they internalize a lot of different things. But for some    they've got a pretty good way of communicating together, and they've got a respect. They've matured through a lot of things together. They have fought obstacles together and conquered them. They've been through the ups and downs at my place when I sold it to the Gillette family; they went through the Richard Petty thing; they went through a year at Red Bull; and I think they've been able to keep their focus. They're going through a little bit of a change here, but they'll also have a lot of support to help them pick up the gaps. You know, I want to make sure that people are, again, being fair to Kasey and to Kenny with expectations, and oh, God, if they don't come right out of the box and do this, it's no good.  I heard somebody the other day say, well, this is his big shot. Well, it is, but it doesn't have to be this year. I believe that they will do what they consistently did at other places is continue to improve. I think they're both patient enough to do that. 

I'm not worried about any kind of a communication with them. They'll probably be a little bit distracted, learning, again, some of the Hendrick systems, the people that surround them, getting used to some of the changes. The one thing that is going in their favor, though, there's a lot of changes that everybody is facing this year with the fuel injection and some of the car changes that NASCAR has made. So it might have helped level out the playing field for them. 

Q. - In terms of the unique advantage he might have, is it any advantage at all to have now driven every make that there is in the circuit? 

RAY EVERNHAM:  You know, probably a driver could answer that better. I think if I could stand back and answer it as a crew chief, I would say, yeah, that would be an advantage because I would kind of know where the competition is strong, where they're weak, and the quirks of where I might be able to make my car better or worse to compete with them. So I think standing back, if you were to say    from a crew chief's point of view, would I have liked to have done some comparison in other makes and brands, I think yes. So could it be an advantage for Kasey and Kenny to have that knowledge? I think it could be. 

Q. - The news out of Daytona here today about the short track racing coming here to the speedway, what are your thoughts being a guy with some mod roots about seeing modifieds racing here at Daytona?

RAY EVERNHAM:  I think it's cool, man; give me a ride. Who's got a car for me? If you want to see an old man go around the corner, I'd love to. I think it's great. I love the modifieds. I don't ever make any secret of that. I've got a collection of vintage modifieds.  Unfortunately some of them I did drive (laughing). 

But it does my heart good. It was an amazing experience to see Richie Evans taken into the Hall of Fame this year, inducted, and it's great to think that the modifieds are going to be running the short track at Daytona. I think that's just an awesome deal.

Q. - So will you be inclined to try and get into one?

RAY EVERNHAM:  Oh, I will be inclined to try and get in one. I will tell you that there will be several people inclined to try and keep me out. 

Q. - I've got a couple things, two kind of big picture questions that are a little bit in conflict.  Is this kind of a tranquil time?  Last year we had all the changes to the wild cards and the new points system and choosing one series and things like that.  Is there any big issue or big change that we kind of got to be on the lookout for this year?

RAY EVERNHAM:  Well, I don't think it's a tranquil time.  But again, we have crossed over now into the electronic fuel injection era, and I think you're going to see a lot of things come out of that.  I don't know what the teams are going to expect. There's been a lot of crew chief and personnel changes.  I think that the economy is picking up, so you're going to see some newer sponsors and things like that coming into the sport and bringing some excitement. I don't know for sure if it's a tranquil time. The competition in the sport is as tight as it's ever been. When you look at the finish of our championship last year, to me it was amazing. I think you're going to see everybody working harder on smaller things because gains are so important, and yet they're that much smaller. I would say it's really an exciting time for the sport. If you look at the television ratings and attendance ratings that were at the end of the year, I think you'll find that the viewers and the fans agreed with that, as well. And carrying that momentum that I feel Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards and those guys created for us with that unbelievable Chase towards the end of last year will carry over. I feel it's a pretty exciting time for racing actually. 

Q. - That was kind of the antithesis of the question, when I talked about not a lot of changes maybe from the points and the Chase and all that.  But a lot of new faces in new places, between Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne moving teams.  Of the drivers making changes, do you see one that's maybe made the biggest impact of all?

RAY EVERNHAM:  Obviously everyone is going to talk about Kasey and Kenny without a doubt because of their record. But I'll tell you a guy that I think it's a big year for him, and I expect him to win more than one race, is AJ Allmendinger in that Penske car. I've just got a feeling that that's going to be a good combination. I don't think anybody is going to be surprised when AJ wins, but I do think he's going to win more than one race. It'll be in my opinion he'll make his first venture into the Chase. But I think AJ has got a ton of talent, and people have known about him for years. They've seen him do the driving. I've actually seen him and worked with him, and I just think that this year is going to be a breakout year for him, as well. I've got a feeling that he and Brad Keselowski are going to be a pretty tough combination over at Penske. 

Q. - For the novice, can you kind of give us kind of an explanation, definition of the electronic fuel    kind of give me an ABC's so we can explain it to the reader without boring them? 

RAY EVERNHAM:  Well, you know, when they call it electronic fuel injection, for years, NASCAR used a standard old carburetor where you stepped on the gas, the gas is drawn by vacuum out of the carburetor down into the engine. Now with electronic fuel injection you have a high pressure, really accurate fuel metering system that sprays the gas under pressure into the manifold. To me that's the biggest difference. The carburetor worked off a vacuum, you know, the old Bernoulli principle where it's sucked down into there from the vacuum the engine creates. This fuel is being forced into the engine now under pressure. That's really the biggest difference. It's more efficient, it's more accurate, but it's more complicated, as well. 

Q. - My question really goes to the Chase this year.  Is it going to be - last year as you had just said, we had a fantastic Chase, very entertaining.  Is it going to be the usual suspects?  You said you thought Allmendinger might break into it.  Do you see any outsiders breaking through the glass and maybe surprising everybody and taking a championship here? 

RAY EVERNHAM:  Well, I think when we get to the Chase, you're going to see some different names than you saw last year. How many? I'm not sure, but I don't believe there will be surprises because when you look at the people that were just outside of the Chase - if Kasey Kahne made the Chase or AJ Allmendinger or Clint Bowyer, if they made the Chase, you wouldn't be surprised. You know what I mean? But when you look at what it comes down to, the season is so long and technology changes and drivers change and motivation change. Who would have really expected three races before the Chase that Tony Stewart was going to do what he did in the Chase? That's the exciting part of this. We can all sit here and try and play "Moneyball" and do all our charts and have all our stuff all over the place, and in the end, because there's a mechanical element and there's still that human element that you can't put your finger on, it's a very, very unpredictable sport. And I think that's what makes it exciting. I do believe that there'll be new names in the Chase. Obviously there'll be some guys that won't make it, and there'll be some new guys in. But it won't be one of those ones where you go, wow, I'm surprised    he made the Chase and I'm surprised.  I think if you look at the top 15 to 18 guys last year and say, look, 12 of these guys are going to be in and six of them aren't, I just don't know which ones, I think you can really say Jimmie Johnson is a pretty safe bet that he's going to be in; Jeff Gordon is a pretty safe bet; Tony Stewart, even though he's the champion, he almost didn't make it last year. That's how competitive it is. 

There are guys that have made it a lot, but when you go back and look, it doesn't take that much to miss it with this new points system.

Q. - What about the Roush Fenway guys?  I know they've been pushing over the off season.  What do you think of that situation? 

RAY EVERNHAM:  You know, I know Jack Roush, and I can tell you that he pushes as hard as anybody in the business. I believe that Carl Edwards and Bob Osborne are going to be right certainly in the middle of stuff. He basically carries the Ford banner. I feel that Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, guys like that    Matt will probably be pretty solid in the Chase. Greg has got to pick up his performance for sure. I'm sure that Jack is going to work on where he thought he was off last year. And again, Carl and Bob Osborne pretty much carried their banner, and I would say if you're on the 16 team or 17 team you're probably sweating a little bit. 

Q. - You talked at the very beginning about the importance of the team side of things you liked at ESPN.  When you and Kasey were together early in his career, y'all had a pretty good team.  One year you won six races.  At what level does the stability of what you had there that year compare to the stability that Kasey is going to have at Hendrick Motorsports?

RAY EVERNHAM:  He's got the stability, you look at my team at that point I think was only five years old, six years old possibly, and we were still growing.  We were kind of - Dodge was actually having financial issues already. There was just a lot of turmoil between growth. I couldn't spend as much time with him.  There were just a number of things that even though we won a lot of races, we were still in our infancy. And here at Hendrick, when I say that, here, because I happen to be sitting on the complex.  I don't want anybody to think that I am working at Motorsports. But I can tell you, what I've realized, when you stand back and realize how much difference there is in a company like Hendrick or like Childress or like Roush that has been in business 20 and 25 years, that's the stability. It's a system, it's a culture, and that experience, it creates almost a confidence, and you just don't have that air of uncertainty, and that allows you to focus more on your job and the race car and the race, where when you're not stable you have lots of other distractions, and people can tell you all they want that that doesn't bother me, I don't think about that, and maybe you don't consciously, but you do unconsciously. And if you're using your brainpower to think about things that don't concern winning races, then it's hard to compete against people that can be there the whole time. 

Q. - You've always considered Kasey a championship driver.  What do you feel like has been missing?

RAY EVERNHAM:  I think some maturity from his part, and he'll tell you the same thing.  He went through a little bit of things where he would lose his cool on the radio or get frustrated, communication. I think that for a while, physical - Kasey is a small guy, and he struggled on the road courses. He got that right. He went on the road course, got his short track program right; he's become a good speedway racer; and thirdly, a good midsize track racer. So I think it's just he had to mature as well as getting in a stable environment. He has always had the talent, ability and commitment most of all. That commitment is a big word in becoming a champion, and I think now he's got the maturity. I think he's probably in the best physical condition and worked hard to put on weight and muscle, things like that. He does not have a lot of distractions in his life, and he's really committed to winning a championship. So I believe that coupled with the resources that Hendrick Motorsports gives him, it's just going to be a matter of    nobody can guarantee a championship. They're just too damned hard to win, period. But he's going to be a threat to win championships over the next several years, I think.

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