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Evernham focuses on the big picture

Ray Evernham was a pioneer among NASCAR's numbers-crunching crew chiefs. These days, the data he most often examines as a car owner has nothing to do with horsepower and downforce.

What he cares about most is getting his car on television.

"Our Joyce Julius numbers are tripled what they were last year," said Evernham, referring to a firm that calculates exposures for corporate sponsors. "We've got more TV coverage. It's been a really good year for us so far."

Each time the camera focuses on Jeremy Mayfield or Kasey Kahne, the sponsorship of Dodge is easily visible on the side of the cars. And that's a winning ticket for Evernham, an ex-driver who nurtured Jeff Gordon from novice to greatness.

The former short-track racer seems very much at home in his new environment of dealing with sponsors, the lifeblood of auto racing.

"I think they're happy we made it," Evernham said after Mayfield qualified in the elite field of 10 drivers seeking the Nextel Cup championship. The third race in the 10-race countdown is Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

"We had two cars that had a legitimate shot at making it," he said.

That's important. To keep lucrative backing near $20-million for a top team, success must come on the track. It has this year at Evernham Motorsports, but the owner's attention is strictly business. No more crunching Cup standings numbers.

"I've been looking more at my budget numbers, not the computer," he said. "That's my job now."

It has been made easier by the work of Mayfield's crew chief, Kenny Francis, and by Tommy Baldwin, who calls the shots for Kahne.

Still, the big picture is building a team and recognizing talent. Mayfield said it's also about inspirational leadership, something he learned last year when Evernham stuck with him through some difficult times on the track.

He made the top-10 chase by winning three weeks ago in Richmond, Va. Kahne narrowly missed, but has five second-place finishes and 10 top-fives _ a figure matching that of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt and exceeded only twice by rookies in Cup history.

Evernham takes little credit.

"I just tell them, "Great job,' " he said.

That's what Dodge thought Evernham was doing when the automaker chose him as point man for its return in 2001 after a 16-year absence from NASCAR's top division. With Mayfield among the title chasers and Kahne the top rookie on the circuit, Evernham is satisfied with the progress of his cars.

"It's not like we are a 20-year team," he said. "We're a fourth-year team with one guy that's a rookie who had never seen some of these places in a Cup car."

But Evernham believes the growth of his operation into one of the best in NASCAR is not a certainty simply because of one good year. He looks to the future, with expansion on his mind.

"We're definitely going to have one full-time Busch car and we're probably going to have a part-time Busch car," he said. "If we're going to get to where we need to be, we've got to be working on driver development."