Hard reign

Jerry Bonkowski
Yahoo! Sports

BROOKLYN, Mich. – Ray Evernham is seeing how the other half lives – not by choice, mind you – and it's not a pretty picture.

For a guy used to winning races and championships, 2007 has been a year Evernham would much rather forget.

"This is the worst year I've ever had in Cup," said Evernham, who fielded his first Cup teams as an owner in 2001. "We're not even running as good as the first year we started."

While it would be a bit easier to understand if just one or maybe even two of his teams was running bad, but all three of Evernham's Dodge-powered teams have struggled.

Heading into Sunday's Citizens Bank 400 here at Michigan International Speedway, Elliott Sadler is the highest-ranked of Evernham's three drivers. But in 20th, sitting 862 points behind series leader Jeff Gordon, that's not saying much.

Teammates Kasey Kahne and Scott Riggs are even worse, sitting 28th and 36th, respectively.

"It happens to Ferrari, McLaren, Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs, everybody else," Evernham said. "This is not a good year for us, but maybe it's a sign of us becoming a better company. I remember Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon going through little dry spells. Right now as a group, we're in a little bit of a dry spell."

A dry spell that has no definitive sign of letting up.

"Right now, we're doing everything we can to fix it," Evernham said. "The biggest issue is we still don't really understand what's wrong. Everybody asks us what's wrong and if we can fix it. We can't identify it, and that's the issue. We've not had anything jump up and give us a direction."

Last season, Kahne led all Nextel Cup drivers with six wins. This season, all three Evernham drivers have been nothing more than envious observers, watching as guys like Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick – plus first-timers Casey Mears and Martin Truex Jr., among others – have captured checkered flags instead of them.

But much like Evernham's success in his teens and early 20s as an amateur boxer, you can knock him and his teams down, but they keep getting up. And it's just a matter of time before they start punching back.

"We've got that confidence in ourselves and in our race team that we're going to get these Dodges and these Evernham cars turned around," Sadler said. "We've got the same people back in the shop that won the most poles and most races last year, so we've just got to get it turned around and going in the right direction and go from there."

While Kahne has not won since last October in Charlotte, Sadler's last trip to victory lane was 2004, long before he joined Evernham's team. While he marks his 300th career Cup start Sunday, Sadler has another streak he'd rather forget about: he hasn't won in 97 starts.

"Your confidence gets a little shaky when you don't win," Sadler said. "It seems like a long time since I last won a couple of races."

If he is to win Sunday, he'll have a long road to travel. He starts near the back of the field in 39th.

"I can win with this 19 team. I know I can," Sadler said. "Have we shown it this year? No, we have not. If we can just get in the right situation at the right track I think good things can happen."

Kahne feels likewise. Even though he starts 36th on Sunday and only has one top-10 finish thus far this season, he's ready to repeat last year's win here at MIS.

"I know we're fast or can be fast if things work out the way we want them to," said Kahne, who has four top-five finishes in six career starts at MIS. "I'm definitely confident. We're ready to win, ready to run up front."

Evernham continues to preach patience and fortitude to his 200-plus employees, that things eventually will turn around. But he admits it's sometimes hard to have to give one pep talk after another and still not see any positive results.

"It's really frustrating to me, but I think it's more frustrating because I see my people and I feel like I'm letting them down," Evernham said. "Ultimately, I'm still responsible for this; it's not their fault, it's my fault. I've done something wrong."

While he continues to try and right his own wayward ship, Evernham hasn't stopped looking toward the future, either. He told Yahoo! Sports that he's officially declared himself in the hunt to bring soon-to-be free agent Kyle Busch into the fold, potentially for a fourth team.

"I think the kind of thing I can offer Kyle a lot of people can't is I've been through a lot of the things he's going through and have gone through them with other drivers and in my own personal life," Evernham said. "If he wants to find a home that can be a long-term good place where people will work with him and a place where our goal is to build something as strong as Hendrick or Gibbs some day, I hope he takes a look at us."

George Gillett Jr., president of the National Hockey League's Montreal Canadiens, could play a key role in Evernham's quest to sign Busch for that potential fourth team. Evernham has been courting Gillett to become a minority investor in the organization, much like Boston Red Sox owner John Henry recently joined ranks with Jack Roush.

Evernham said a partnership with Gillett is getting closer, perhaps two months away from being completed. Evernham said he'd love to announce a deal in Montreal in early August for NASCAR's first-ever Busch Series race there.

"That'd be awesome," he said. "That would be good incentive for the attorneys to hurry up and get it done."

And maybe that good off-track news would be enough to get Evernham's teams moving in the right direction on the track.

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