By: Zach Sturniolo (Contributing Journalist for ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle.’) (July 20, 2021)
Born and raised in New Jersey, Ray Evernham has always had close roots to Pocono Raceway.
In fact, some of those roots even predate the pavement that set the groundwork for today’s 2.5-mile Tricky Triangle, seeing the land that would become Pocono as an pre-teen kid.
“Gosh, I remember all of the stuff that was going on when I was being built,” Evernham recalled. “That would have been, gosh, late 60s, early 70s, because I worked for a man and was friends with a man who was a big IndyCar fan, and he kept me up to speed. And obviously Chris Economaki and Speed Sport News was right there in the middle of all that stuff, so we were pretty excited that there was a racetrack being built. I actually took a ride up there with some friends before the place was even done, which was amazing.”
Pocono marked the first time Evernham — or any fans directly located in the tri-state area — could see top-tier racing from IndyCar and NASCAR in person without having to drive hours south or west to find a big enough racetrack.
“It was the first superspeedway, if you will, that we had,” Evernham said. “And you look at where Pocono’s at and the amount of race fans that are in the northeast, and that’s big modified, sprint car country. They’re right around there. You’ve got the dirt modified, UMP modifieds, sprint cars. …
“To me, it was really big. And I will tell you that I went to a few of the Pocono 500s, but again, didn’t get tickets for the first Cup race. But we went up there and cut school and drove up there to see practice. And I can remember how excited I was because that’s when they used to haul the Cup cars in open trailers. They had a great big giant box truck, and then they hauled the car behind them in an open trailer, and Richard Petty pulled in and you can see that car on the back of that trailer from the grandstand. … It was really cool, because that gave me the first opportunity that I ever have had to see the IndyCars up close and then to see the NASCAR Cup cars up close.”
From Pocono’s infancy until the mid-1990s sat a ¾-mile track on the north end of the facility near Turn 3. A true product of the modified scene, Evernham found his way out to Long Pong plenty often at the grassroots level of the sport.
“The modified race was always a big race for us because that was the Race of Champions, and anybody who was anybody in the modifieds — and then a bunch of us who wanted to be somebody with modified — showed up,” Evernham said. “You got to race with people that you didn’t normally race with, get to see modifieds from the south, from the north, wherever.”
Evernham prides himself in the good performances he had there, but acknowledged luck was never quite on his side.
His best run was a 13th-place finish in the 1986 Race of Champions driving the No. 20 car. But another run came to his mind — that being his last appearance as a driver when he drove George Ross’ No. 28 car.
“I know we came from the back up to the front,” Evernham said. “We lost a cylinder, they tried to repair the motor the best they could, but man, we were going so good. We were really, really going good. I think I got up to sixth or seventh, and we were gonna have a really good day and the motor broke.”
That all, of course, predated Evernham’s decorated career at the top echelon of NASCAR. Evernham sat atop the pit box of Jeff Gordon as crew chief of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, leading the team to three championships and 49 wins from 1993-1999.
In the midst of that run came incredible success at Pocono Raceway, including a 10-race span that saw Gordon finish in the top two a remarkable seven times between 1995 and 1999, with three of those being victories.
The secret to their domination? The weather. Really.
“I think wherever you go, if you’ve got a pretty good handle on the weather, that helps you a lot,” Evernham said. “And I remember having a good idea about what we’re going to be facing with practice. And then at Pocono, 500 [miles] was a long, long race and a track that big doesn’t act the same way [at all times] because it really never has the same amount of sun and clouds on it as consistently as another track.
“I always had some desire to want to do really well there because of all my friends. And again, it sounds crazy, but being able to understand the weather and the things up there helped me a little bit too.”
As well as Evernham understood the weather as a crew chief, it seemed Mother Nature had a soft spot for him as a car owner as well.
Evernham debuted his own team, Evernham Motorsports, as Dodge’s flagship team as the manufacturer returned to NASCAR in 2001.
Flash forward to the 2002 Pennsylvania 500. Evernham’s driver Bill Elliott claimed the pole and led the field to green in what became an incredibly long day thanks to a first-lap red flag for a crash and a second much later in the afternoon for rain.
Sterling Marlin dominated the day by leading 106 laps, but due to the delays and impending darkness, NASCAR decided to cut the race short by 25 laps.
Once Elliott got the word, it was game over for Marlin and Elliott charged past to lead the final 19 laps en route to the win.
“That was typical Bill Elliott,” Evernham said. “We were fighting rain and stuff that day, but Bill was just always Bill and never showed exactly what he had. And if you remember, we were okay. We were good, and then Sterling Marlin was really good. Sterling passed us and Bill’s just riding there.
“Then when they said they were going to shorten the race … Bill just hit another gear and goes on by Sterling. He just never would tell us how good he was. I didn’t think we were going to win. I thought we were going to be second, third, something like that. And that was just Bill, saving his stuff and going.”
That win capped a weekend sweep for Evernham as Casey Atwood claimed the victory in that weekend’s ARCA race one day prior. Those coupled with a Pocono 500 win by Kasey Kahne in the 2008 Pocono 500 highlight a special resume at one of the tracks nearest to Evernham’s heart.
“It was really a thrill for me to win there as an owner,” he said. “I always had a very, very good relationship with the Mattiolis. I still do today, but Doc and Rose especially. I grew up around that place really. Just think about it again, started running modifieds around there in my early 20s. And then when Jeff and I would win races and do things up there, the Mattiolis were always really good to us. So it was a really nice and special feeling to go there and win as an owner. …
“So if you look at the finishes and the poles and the wins up there, Pocono’s been pretty good to me throughout the years.”
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