Ray Evernham and his team have seen better times.
A year ago, Evernham Motorsports was by far the best Dodge team
in NASCAR's Nextel Cup series. It was on course to put Kasey Kahne
in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship with six wins and six
poles, and have Elliott Sadler and Scott Riggs wind up in the top
22 in season points. The expectations for 2007 were much higher.
So far, though, this season has been a nightmare for Evernham
and all three drivers.
After the first nine races, Sadler leads the trio at 15th in the
standings, while Kahne is 31st and Riggs 36th. Each has produced
one top 10 this season, and the only one of those coming since the
season-opening Daytona 500 was Riggs' eighth-place run at Martinsville.
"It's easy to go back and look at all the things that went
wrong,'' Evernham said.
The first thing to go wrong came at Daytona, where all three of
Evernham's crew chiefs were caught cheating in a post-qualifying inspection.
Kenny Francis, crew chief for Kahne, was suspended four races
and the No. 9 car was docked 50 points. Rodney Childers, crew chief
for Riggs, and Josh Browne, crew chief for Sadler, were suspended
two races and each of their teams lost 25 points.
"We got off base early in the season, obviously, with the loss
of the crew chiefs, and our resources aren't as deep as they are at other places to overcome something like that,'' said Evernham, a former championship crew chief.
He also pointed out that building the current cars and
NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow, which will run a total of 16 races
this season, has pushed his team to the limit.
"Let's face it," he added, "Dodge has been cutting back
resources so, and I'm not complaining, but we probably don't have
as many resources to develop two programs at one time.
"We've told everybody time and time again that the big
companies with a lot of resources are going to be able to get
things done faster. And Rick Hendrick showed how strong his company
is, the way he's dominating this year, to be able to have enough people to develop two cars at one time, and come out and be kicking butt in both of them.''
The Hendrick team has won six of the nine races, including three
by reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, one by Kyle Busch and the
past two by Jeff Gordon, the four-time champion and current points
leader. Johnson, Busch and Gordon have swept the three COT races run thus far.
"That's just a tribute to Rick and his organization, but they
also have a lot of resources,'' Evernham said.
The slow start has been hard on his drivers, particularly a very
frustrated Kahne, considered one of the bright young stars of the sport.
"Sure it's frustrating, but my biggest thing as a driver right
now is just making sure I bring it home in one piece and get all
the points we can each week and not get down on the guys because
they're working hard; and it's just a matter of trying to do
everything right on my side of things,'' Kahne said. "As the year
goes on, hopefully the cars (will) get faster.''
Evernham is hopeful that things are already beginning to turn
around as they head for Richmond and another COT race this week.
All three of his drivers were in the top 15 Sunday at Talladega.
"We're just trying to keep everybody focused on the right
things,'' the owner said. "We're one or two good runs away from turning the thing around, and I think the guys have got good attitudes, at least outwardly.
"Hey, inside, anybody that cares about it is being eaten up a
little bit. But, outside, you've got to control the part you can
control. This is the same team that won the most races and the most
poles last year and we'll get it turned around.''
Meanwhile, Evernham has taken the unusual step of hiring a
sports therapist to work with the entire team on handling a stressful situation.
"You know, pressure can be good and not good,'' he said.
"You've just got to learn how to balance it. When you get to 350
people, or whatever we have now, it's hard to get that spread across the company.
"When you get beat up, sometimes you just get a half-step off,
and we need to get that half a step back. And a lot of that is
mental. This is a sport as much as any other sports. But it's also
a business with a lot of different pressures. We're going to bring
this guy in to try to identify those and deal with them.''
Evernham noted that he used to be "the motivational guy in
handling the stress'' on his team.
"We've got this guy coming in to help us with the stress and
the motivational part of it because it's just too big for me to handle now,'' he said. "The mechanical thing is an easy part to fix. We'll fix it. We'll figure out our resources and we'll get a handle on that.''
And a win or two might go a long way toward relieving most of
the stress at Evernham Motorsports.