Evernham still looking for consistent formula

Updated: January 25, 2006, 3:08 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

Crew chiefing for Ray Evernham is like playing basketball for Michael Jordan. Nobody expects that you'll ever be as good as your boss was. Nobody believes you'll accomplish as much as your boss ever did. Nobody has much faith in you exceeding your boss' stature. Least of all your boss.

Ray Evernham
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesRay Evernham had an interesting 2006.

At least, that's been the knock against Evernham as a team owner in NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series. The three-time championship crew chief, who oversaw 47 wins in 189 races with Jeff Gordon, hasn't been as frequent a visitor to Victory Lane since branching out on his own and starting Evernham Motorsports. And despite qualifying a driver for the past two Chase for the Nextel Cups, an owner's title has eluded the future Motorsports Hall of Famer.

In response to unfulfilled expectations, Evernham has orchestrated massive change in his organization, one which demotes any one man as crew chief -- the job he took to new heights -- in favor of a leadership-by-committee approach. Some believe the proposed structure places control in the hands of the one man Evernham trusts most.

Himself.

After adding a third car to his stable, driven by Scott Riggs, Evernham restructured each team so that it would be led by a team director, a car director and a head engineer. Collectively, these three form the brain trust for each car, together acting as one crew chief.

For Jeremy Mayfield and the No. 19 Dodge, the team which qualified for the Chase the past two years, that committee will be headed by team director Chris Andrews. On the No. 9 Dodge driven by Kasey Kahne, the committee is a group of guys who spearheaded Mayfield's two Chase campaigns, with team director Kenny Francis at the helm. On the No. 10 Dodge driven by Scott Riggs, the committee is headed by team director Rodney Childers.

"This new structure does away with the traditional model of the crew chief as the primary decision maker for the team, instead sharing these responsibilities among the team leadership," Evernham said. "The job of the crew chief has certainly changed since I held that position.

"Today, the job of the crew chief is almost too big for one person. When you consider the growing responsibilities of managing the big picture for the team, overseeing all of the details for each race weekend, guiding all of the people and still having time to focus on the competition, it's a challenge. That's why we are creating a leadership team for each of our race teams with a team director, car director and engineer."

The committee approach didn't sit well with everyone in the organization. Most notably, Kahne's former crew chief Tommy Baldwin and "Slugger" Labbe, a key member of Mayfield's team, both left. At least for Baldwin, the decision had something to do with the diminished role of crew chief under the Evernham system.

"There were some things that Tommy wasn't getting to do that he was the year before," Kahne said. "There were some things with the team structure, the way Ray wanted to structure the team. Tommy didn't really like it as much, but that's the way it was going to be, so he needed to either like it or figure out a different position. It kind of got on Tommy and it kind of got on Ray and our engineers. We went through a couple of different engineers because people just weren't happy.

"Part of it is Ray's structure, and that might have been what Tommy wasn't happy about and some of the other guys were. It just caused them hard feelings there. That was some of the minor stuff that went on, but that's the way Ray wanted it."

But Evernham is adamant that he's not controlling. He denies that his recent changes are directed at putting him back in the crew chief role.

"I voluntarily left that [crew chief position] behind," he said. "I am focused on being an owner."

For his part, Evernham believes the new structure is just the type of innovative approach it will take for him to take his team from championship contender to championship caliber. And his team is buying into it.

Evernham
Just like major corporations move their leadership teams into new assignments every 12 to 24 months to expand their experience and collectively build the organization, we want to share our group IQ to increase our performance and success.
Ray Evernham

"He does a good job of not being a crew chief," Kahne said.

"We put pressure on ourselves just to win," Mayfield said. "It's not about anything other than just wanting to be the best out there. Ray stays on the guys, and he's not afraid to change things up in a heartbeat. So far, we're still searching for what we want in the race teams, and he's made the changes we needed."

Riggs, the new kid on the block, admits that it's a different kind of ownership situation where Evernham does wield more control over individual teams and individual decisions. He stopped short of calling Evernham a crew chief, but acknowledged that he has more authority than other team owners he's worked with.

But from Riggs's perspective, that's a good thing.

"Having an owner who has so much responsibility and authority over your team and your career and [to] have a proven winner and racer at heart is a perfect match," Riggs said. "You've always got someone you can go to and ask technical questions. No matter what it is, he'll understand it and be able to shed some kind of light on it."

Still, even Kahne and Mayfield say that the frequent change in leadership positions, and the current amorphous roles of the folks on the squad, pose some challenges.

"It's a little confusing and it keeps changing with the roles," Kahne said. "Some people have left, and we've got some new people, too. Ray keeps looking for people who want to make a commitment, and that's what they want to focus on."

Adds Mayfield, who is working with an almost entirely new set of faces: "The No. 19 is struggling a little bit with the new deal because we don't know how the people are going to work out, but other than that, we are in pretty good shape."

It's hard to argue with Evernham's strategy, though. What made him so good as a crew chief was that he thought outside of the box and constantly looked for new ways to approach old problems. And he's proven himself as a new team owner. In five years as a team owner fielding full-time rides in Cup, Evernham has notched at least one victory per season. All told, he has seven victories as a team owner.

And he believes taking a corporate approach to running his teams will reap fortunes.

Said Evernham: "Just like major corporations move their leadership teams into new assignments every 12 to 24 months to expand their experience and collectively build the organization, we want to share our group IQ to increase our performance and success."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com