Evernham not throwing in the towel just yet

Tuesday, September 26th 2006, 8:53 am
By: News On 6

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (AP) _ What a roller-coaster year its been for Ray Evernham, the car owner who hoped to use the Chase for the championship as a springboard to lift him from this season of strife, struggle and, yes, scandal.

Instead, he found himself in that same old rut Monday, a day after Kasey Kahne's 38th-place finish pretty much eliminated him from Nextel Cup contention. After a frantic push to even make the 10-race Chase, Evernham Motorsports never even got a clean shot to run for the title.

A ho-hum run in New Hampshire, followed by a classic case of wrong place, wrong time on Sunday in Dover, Delaware, has Kahne a distant ninth-place in the standings with eight races to go.

``No more championship,'' Kahne shrugged. ``We all thought we had a shot to win the Nextel Cup, but you can't have two rough weeks.''

Slow down, driver, your car owner isn't throwing in the towel just yet.

Especially not when these final eight weeks of the season provide an opportunity to erase a lot of what happened in the first 26.

``I've always said you control the part you can, and you can't worry about the rest,'' said Evernham, ``and what happened Sunday we couldn't control. When does Tony Stewart ever spin out? The guy has the best car control in the business, and then the one-in-a million time he does spin, he wrecks my guy. All you can do there is laugh.

``But then you get back to business. It doesn't mean we are done. We've got a chance. It's not over until it's over.''

Evernham makes a convincing argument, but few outside his camp will buy into it.

Kahne is in a tremendous hole and there's too many terrific points racers ahead of Kahne in the standings who will need to falter. Still, it could happen.

After all, Kahne needed just two races to erase a 90-point deficit to earn a berth in the Chase. But this hole is twice as deep, and the stakes are so much higher _ for both the driver and the car owner.

Evernham fully expected 2006 to be his year. He expanded from two cars to three, a growth that required him to make tough personnel moves that were certain to leave someone unhappy.

That someone was Jeremy Mayfield, a two-time Chase qualifier who saw key team members taken away and given to Kahne and new teammate Scott Riggs. Mayfield didn't like it, and when his team began to stumble, he put the blame squarely on Evernham.

Their relationship steadily _ and publicly _ deteriorated until Mayfield was fired in August. But even that didn't end things.

In trying to work out a better settlement, Mayfield filed a court injunction to keep his job that alleged his team suffered because Evernham has a ``close personal relationship'' with female driver Erin Crocker that was distracting the car owner.

Evernham refuses to address Mayfield's allegations, other than to lump them together with everything else that has happened this season.

``The changes I made in the beginning of the season, I took a lot of criticism, I took a lot of heat. But I stand by them and feel it has shown its been better for the company,'' he said. ``It's been a hard year sponsorshipwise. And lets face it, its been a pretty nasty year personally. I've taken a lot of abuse publicly for things that I feel are unfair.

``But I believe if I continue to work hard and do the things that I do, everything will be fine. And I've always believed that the greatest enemy of any lie is time.''

So all Evernham can do is try to rally the troops and convince Kahne that this fight is not over. They've got eight races left, and five of them are on a 1.5-mile tracks _ the exact circuit Kahne was unbeatable on earlier this year.

He's also got sponsorship woes with Crocker, who is losing General Mills as the primary source of financial support on her Truck Series ride. Either way, he plans to have her back for a full season in 2007.

And he's also moving forward with plans to expand to four Nextel Cup teams by 2008. But that takes sponsors, and sponsors want to sign with winners, and that puts the pressure back on Evernham to deliver a legitimate Chase contender.

Mayfield really wasn't in his two stints, making it in only to fizzle out as soon as the Chase began. Now Evernham wants to prevent Kahne from doing the same thing.

``I really feel good about the potential, and I am pushing harder than ever,'' he said. ``It is good to be this close, but it sucks to be this close and not be able to crest that hill. Sooner or later we're going to get there, though. I can promise you that.''