- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- When Bill Elliott announced at the end of last season that he was going to fade into semi-retirement and would only run a handful of races in 2004, it left a lot of questions and uncertainty at Evernham Motorsports.
Could the team thrive without its premier driver behind the wheel full-time? Could Jeremy Mayfield, who had spent much of his career as a journeyman in the shadows of Rusty Wallace and then Elliott, successfully step up to the plate to become the team's No. 1 driver in 2004? Could rookie Kasey Kahne handle the pressure in his first season in Nextel Cup?
It didn't take long for Ray Evernham to emphatically put an answer to each of those questions: Yes, yes and yes.
Not only is Mayfield 11th in the standings, just two points out of 10th place heading into Sunday's DHL 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Kahne has become the top rookie thus far this season and is just two places and 21 points behind his senior teammate.
"Kasey brought a lot of newness to this race team and people are excited and things like that, but Kasey goes to Jeremy a lot and asks some things," Evernham said. "I think sometimes when you're the teacher you can actually become a better student. I think when Jeremy is trying to help Kasey explain some of the things he needs to do at certain tracks for qualifying and getting around, it gets Jeremy thinking about that and I think he does better because he's teaching Kasey.
"We always felt like Jeremy had a lot of talent that we couldn't get out. We were missing something. For some reason now that Bill is not the senior guy on a full-time basis, probably Jeremy is looked up as the veteran on the team and he's a journeyman, he's stepped into that role real well. I think maybe it helps him puff his chest out a little bit more, but I think there's a newfound confidence there and he's really happy with that role and he's driving better because of it."
Needless to say, things are going quite well around the Statesville, N.C., camp of Evernham Motorsports, but in the boss's eyes, they've just scratched the surface.
"I don't think they've hit their stride," he says of his two Nextel Cup teams. "We still have more potential that we haven't tapped. It's just that more and more people are hitting their stride together. Certainly Jeremy and Kasey have complimented each other way better than we ever thought. They are a good team. They're helping one another a great deal. I think Jeremy trying to help Kasey has made Jeremy a better race driver.
"I think that Tommy Baldwin (Kahne's crew chief) coming in and getting along with Kenny Francis, Josh Brown and Sammy Johns (on Mayfield's team), they've just made a great team. The communication is great there. We've got a little more to go to hit our stride. I don't think anybody could imagine that all these different personalities would have meshed this good."
While things are certainly going better than Evernham thought they would, one thing is still lacking: Mayfield and Kahne each are seeking their first wins this season, which either one has a shot to accomplish Sunday at the two-mile MIS.
Mayfield comes into this weekend with two top-five and three other top-10 performances in the first 14 races. He's especially riding high of late, finishing eighth at both Charlotte and Dover (where he set the track record in winning the pole), and just barely missing a victory (he finished second) this past Sunday at Pocono. The runner-up finish shot him from 15th to 11th in the standings.
"I don't think when you put an expectation or pressure to win on anybody in this business that it's fair," Evernham said. "It's just too competitive and there are too many things that dictate whether or not you're going to win. Jeremy could be sitting here on a couple of wins this year. Kasey could be sitting here on two or three."
The 13th-ranked Kahne, meanwhile, has four top-five outings thus far this season, including runner-up finishes at Rockingham, Las Vegas and Texas, and a third-place finish at Atlanta. He also has sat on the pole four times this season, the most recent at Pocono, where he set the track qualifying record before eventually finishing 14th in the race. Kahne is so close to his first win he and everyone else at Evernham Motorsports can practically taste it.
"We've got five second-place finishes this year with two different cars, so we've had a shot to win," Evernham said. "We've just got to keep taking those shots on goal and sooner or later we're going to score.
"As far as Kasey is concerned, I'm probably worried more about the extra media attention and things he's got. You're looking at a guy that's run 15 Cup races and everybody is going 'Oh, man, he's overdue to win.' Wait a minute. That's putting a little too much pressure on those guys. I'm just trying to keep them in perspective to perform and try and shoot for top-15s when they have an off day. They had an off day at Pocono on Sunday and still had a top 15. I think that's good for a rookie team.
"They've just got to focus on fundamentals and the wins will come, but if Kasey focuses too hard on trying to compare himself to Jeff Gordon and other people they're trying to compare him to, I think that could be a bad thing. I'm just trying to keep him focused on being Kasey Kahne."
For as well as both Mayfield and Kahne have performed this season, Evernham isn't quite ready to build a new case for the Nextel Cup championship trophy just yet -- but at the same time, both teams are getting very close to becoming contenders.
"We're not ready as a team to start setting goals on wins and championships," he said. "We've set our goals on stuff like horsepower and aerodynamics and how fast our pit stops are going to be. We're still working on blocking and tackling. We're working on getting this team to be ready. I believe we're real close to being ready to start to challenge for championships.
"Right now, if we want to win consistently and we want to win championships, we've got to keep improving in a lot of areas. In a short period of time, we have done a really great job. We started with nothing in late 1999. We've built buildings, an organization, helped design cars and motors, pit crews and a lot of things like that. Will we win a championship in a shorter period of time than other race teams? I don't know, but I think right now we've built a good organization in as short a period of time as anybody has ever done it."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@Yahoo.com.
Questions about Ray Evernham's racing operation in light of Bill Elliott's semi-retirement have been answered.