Ray Evernham knows a thing or two about identifying young talent.
After all, Evernham was atop the pit box as crew chief of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for three of Jeff Gordon’s four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships, the first coming when Gordon was just 24 years old.
So imagine the surprise for Evernham, one of 20 nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, when he saw Chase Elliott on track for the first time when he was barely half the age Gordon was in his first title run.
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The story goes like this: Evernham and Bill Elliott, who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall Class of 2015, were testing for the Prelude to the Dream, a high-dollar dirt late model race held annually at Tony Stewart’s historic Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. Chase Elliott, Bill’s son, tagged along with them. According to Evernham, Chase was 12 or 13 at the time.
"We were running at North Georgia Speedway, a nice little Speedway," said Evernham. "We had rented the track and were playing around and it got to be the end of the day and I was about done and Bill was done, and they came out of the trailer with this thing that looked like a highchair. I’m not kidding you. It looked like a highchair made of tubing.
"I’ve never forgotten that. Obviously Bill was right," Evernham said. "I wasn’t shocked when he beat me, honestly," said Evernham. But I was pretty shocked when he beat Bill, because Bill’s a pretty darn good driver, and he’s a pretty darn good dirt driver as well. These were 400-and-something cubic-inch super late models. These weren’t toys we were driving that day.
Since that time, Elliott has gotten even better, last year becoming the youngest driver in history to win a championship in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions. Next year, of course, he will succeed Gordon in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
But Evernham still remembers the day Chase really was a kid and not one of a handful of young guns coming up through the NASCAR ranks.
"Chase was maybe 13. And to go out there on the dirt track and run faster (than the adults) and look so smooth? Yeah, I was pretty impressed," said Evernham.