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Getting Back on Track

Evernham tries to keep his personal life separate from his professional life

September 09, 2006|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

When the tabloid stuff hit the fan, Ray Evernham, who owns a Dodge team in Nextel Cup stock car racing, found an unlikely ally in Kurt Busch, probably the most disliked driver in NASCAR.

"Kurt came up and shook my hand at Watkins Glen and said, 'Man, you're a good guy. I know what you're going through and it's unfair,' " Evernham recalled last week at California Speedway. "It made me feel good."

The Evernham jam was fueled by an allegation last month in a North Carolina civil suit, since settled out of court, by driver Jeremy Mayfield, who had been fired by Evernham.

In his suit, Mayfield contended that Evernham's "close personal relationship" with Erin Crocker, who drives for Evernham in the Craftsman Truck series and is one of NASCAR'S few female drivers, had made him an "absentee owner" which was responsible for the demise of the No. 19 Dodge that Mayfield drove.

But Evernham, 49, and going through a divorce, says he isn't letting talk of him and Crocker, 25, get in the way of the on-track product.

"My personal life has never affected my professional life," said Evernham, who was shepherding Jeff Gordon's burgeoning career in 1992 when his infant son was diagnosed with leukemia. "I feel people have made some things personal that shouldn't have been personal at all."

Besides, Evernham has seen a resurgence in his Cup team since Mayfield was shown the door.

Tonight at Richmond International Raceway, Evernham hopes to take another step toward discrediting his detractors as driver Kasey Kahne tries to qualify for the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship. He is 30 points behind Jeff Burton for the final qualifying berth in the 10-man Chase. Kahne, dominating winner of the Sony HD 500 last weekend at California Speedway, won the first race of his Cup career last year at Richmond.

If Kahne qualifies for the Chase, it will be the fourth consecutive year that Evernham has had a driver in the top 10, and it will guarantee a top-15 finish in each of his six years as the team owner who spearheaded Dodge's reentry into NASCAR.

Mayfield had only two top-15 finishes in 21 races for Evernham, with a best of 13th. Elliott Sadler, in only three races as Mayfield's replacement, has already finished 10th and 13th, and was running 14th at Bristol Motor Speedway when he tangled with a lapped car. Evernham said that accident cost Sadler a top-10 finish.

"We're really happy with the communication Elliott has brought, and the attitude," Evernham said. "It proved the equipment is strong, the team is strong, and the system works. This business is about communication and attitude. He's proven to us that if we use the same setups as the other two cars use, we can all be fairly close."

Kahne and Scott Riggs, in his first season with Evernham, have benefited from Sadler's arrival, the owner said, adding that communication was lacking from Mayfield, who preferred to follow his own path when it came to setting up the car.

In the three races since Sadler left Robert Yates Racing and joined Evernham Motorsports, Kahne has finished fourth at Michigan, 12th at Bristol and first at California, his series-high fifth victory. He has gained 80 points in the standings in that span.

Riggs has finished 14th, fourth and 17th, his best three-week streak of the season. He is 19th in the championship, but only 96 points out of 15th place, even though he missed the Daytona 500.

Mayfield's agent, Dale Cagle, didn't respond to an interview request by The Times. Neither did a representative for Crocker, who is 23rd in the truck series.

Mayfield showed steady improvement with Evernham, finishing 26th in 2002, then 19th, 10th and ninth in successive seasons. But he was 34th in the driver standings after his 41st-place result in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis a month ago. Worse, the car had fallen to 36th in owner points, and had to qualify for races on time, rather than get an automatic berth in the field as a top-35 car.

Mayfield took the extraordinary step of suing the team owner after being terminated without compensation after Indy. As a means of protecting himself financially, he said later, Mayfield sought a restraining order to prevent Bill Elliott from driving the No. 19 on the road course at Watkins Glen, N.Y., the next weekend. Evernham settled immediately rather than risk the No. 19 not making the race.

Mayfield claimed in his suit that "for significant periods of time, [Evernham] has been, at best, an absentee manager and owner."

Mayfield has since signed with Bill Davis Racing to drive a Toyota next year.

Evernham was offended by the claim and answered it in an affidavit, saying he took only eight days off this year, and had missed three Cup races this season, which were the only ones he had missed since 1993.

He also claimed that Mayfield had disparaged him and the team, breached his contract by not putting forth "his best diligent effort" in the series, and crashed his car at Indianapolis on purpose to ensure it would fall out of the top 35 in the standings.

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