Two Night: Gordon, Evernham ‘Snookered” The 600
CONCORD, N.C. – Twenty years ago, 22-year-old upstart Jeff Gordon and his Ray Evernham-led Hendrick Motorsports team drove into Coca-Cola 600 history by outsmarting the 1989 series champion on the competitors’ final stop at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Rusty Wallace’s Penske Racing crew changed four tires, which was the accepted practice at the time, while Gordon’s Chevrolet received only two. That night, it was described as a gamble by fellow competitors and the media. However, Evernham now admits the decision in May 1994 wasn’t a gamble at all, but rather a planned move.
“We had actually tested that in practice,” Evernham said. “I knew exactly how far two tires would go. I knew exactly how much time we would lose per lap, and I knew exactly what pressure changes were made. It was something I was playing with for a while. I felt like we could get an advantage doing it. We used it several more times throughout our career before other people started really to catch on with it, about how to adjust the pressure in the radial tire for a two-tire stop.”
At the time there was a tire war between Goodyear and Hoosier and radial tires were new to NASCAR racing. Wallace had led nearly half of the race – 187 laps of 400 – on Goodyear tires. Geoff Bodine was Hoosier’s flagship team and he was the primary concern of Wallace’s crew chief, Buddy Parrott.
“I was worried about keepin’ them Hoosiers from winning the race, and I guess I forgot about the other guys,” Parrott said immediately after the event. “He (Gordon) snookered us.”
That night, Parrott’s strategy was to pit Wallace for four tires at just the right time in order to provide him with the maximum benefit in the battle with Bodine. Wallace’s four-tire change on lap 375 took approximately 17 seconds. The stop came while he was leading and it triggered a series of green-flag pit stops in the event’s closing laps. The lap after Wallace pitted the fifth-place Ernie Irvan stopped. Two laps later Dale Jarrett gave up fourth to replace four tires. Race leader Bodine pitted for four tires on lap 379. Gordon pitted on lap 382 and received just two tires in less than 10 seconds, half the time of his fellow competitors.
Gordon re-entered the race in second, but leader Ricky Rudd had yet to stop and everyone knew there was no way he could make it to the checkered flag. Rudd finally relinquished the lead to Gordon on lap 391. When Rudd pitted Gordon was more than 2 seconds ahead of Wallace and he simply cruised the rest of the way.
“We did it in practice and I had done it at other tracks,” Evernham said about the two-tire change. “I kept experimenting and finally when it came time we executed and it worked out exactly like we thought. It was really just a matter of how far you had to be ahead and how much time you were going to lose on two tires. The biggest factor that got us even more cushion was I had estimated the car was going to slow down so much over the last 15 laps, but when Gordon got the lead he took off. He didn’t slow down any.”
At the race’s end, Gordon led Wallace by 3.91 seconds and he became the first driver to win the Coca-Cola 600 from the pole position since David Pearson in 1976. Gordon also matched Pearson by winning the race in only his second Coca-Cola 600 start. Pearson won in his second 600 in 1961.
“That was such a huge moment for me,” recalled Gordon, who sobbed in victory lane that night. “I look back at that and I was still just a young kid and it was amazing that I was just in the Cup garage, at Hendrick Motorsports and had the opportunity that I had. You really never know what you are capable of doing until you accomplish it.”
Evernham said he felt a tremendous amount of pressure entering the event because the team hadn’t won, even though it was just in its second Cup season.
“I was starting to get a lot of heat from the media about not winning,” Evernham recalled. “They actually questioned whether I was the one holding Jeff back. So it was a tough week for me.”
That night, however, everything Evernham and team owner Rick Hendrick had done was validated.
“I remember feeling we had arrived because we had a good car, we were fast, Jeff sat on the pole, but we out-strategized them,” Evernham said. “That day I felt like we beat the best in motorsports. We had proven we were worthy of being there.
“When you look back Jeff was young and just pure talent. He was fearless, confident, an incredible race car driver. I would never take that away from him, but the fact that he was open-minded and just fearless. He was going to get it done somehow. I think he’s still that way. In my opinion, there was no finer race driver to ever sit in a race car than a young Jeff Gordon.
“It was an incredible day and an incredible memory. The final period on a sentence that Jeff Gordon had arrived.”
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