When Jeff Gordon’s time comes to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame – and it surely will come, either in 2019 or 2020 – it will be more than well-deserved. After all, Gordon’s career speaks for itself: four Cup Series titles, three Daytona 500 wins, and a lasting legacy as one of the sport’s greatest drivers ever.
All that success is not Gordon’s alone to enjoy, though. On Friday, Gordon’s longtime crew chief Ray Evernham was inducted himself as part of the seven-man class (the others being Red Byron, Ron Hornaday Jr., Ken Squier, Jim France, Norma “Dusty” Brandel and the late Robert Yates) of 2018.
But Evernham’s induction brings up an interesting question: Is Gordon responsible for Evernham’s success ... or the other way around?
“We can have the great debate forever about if Ray and I could have stayed together, what would we have gone on to do?” Gordon said Friday, “and I think about that every once in a while because I know we would have won more races, and I think we would have won more championships.”
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Go back to the start of their relationship. Evernham and Gordon first worked together briefly in 1990, which eventually led to a long-term reunion that began at the end of the 1992 season. The two clicked instantly, and in 1995, won their first championship together.
Two others would follow in 1997 and 1998, and throughout the majority of the 1990s, Evernham and Gordon were the team to beat in NASCAR.
Nothing lasts forever though, and in 1999, the two separated.
“People ask me all the time about our relationship. I tell them we didn’t hang out, he’s 14 years younger than I am,” Evernham said of Gordon. “But come Friday to Sunday? Our communication was just inseparable, and we still are.
“The fact that I got to do it with him ... makes everything more special.”
Evernham went on to form his own team, Evernham Motorsports, and work occasionally on television as a racing analyst. Gordon remained full-time in NASCAR’s top division until 2015 (although he did fill in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016 for a handful of races when Earnhardt missed time due to concussion issues). Without Evernham, Gordon only won one other Cup Series title in 2001, although he came close in other seasons.
In 2013, Gordon wondered in an interview how his career might have been different had he stayed with Evernham longer.
“I think all the time, back to when Ray and I were together, if we could have just made it through 1999,” Gordon said at the time. “And we’ve been able to stay close friends through it all, but we always talk about that time.
“I think if we had done that, we could have really gone on to even win more championships together.”
That train of thought has stuck with Gordon ever since, even still to this day.
Now, Gordon will eventually follow Evernham into the Hall of Fame, and Everham said as much Friday when he addressed the possibility of the two entering the Hall together in 2019.
It’s impossible not to wonder what could have been, but there’s also no sense in bemoaning the point. Could Evernham and Gordon have won more races – and more championships – had they stayed together? Perhaps.
But two Hall of Fame careers ain’t bad, either.