Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday May 16, 2008
It seems that Silly Season gets earlier and wilder every year, but this year it’s… well, silly. Touched off by contract extension talks between Carl Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing and a rumor that Tony Stewart could leave Joe Gibbs Racing as early as this year, the grind that is NASCAR Silly Season cranked into high gear.
One place where the rumors swirl thick and fast is around the No. 5 car of Hendrick Motorsports. The car, driven by Casey Mears, made the Chase in 2007 with Kyle Busch at the wheel, and Mears moved over from the No. 25 when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. replaced Busch for the 2008 season. Mears is currently 27th in the Sprint Cup driver point standings, with just two Top 10 finishes. In comparison, teammates Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Gordon have eight, four and five Top 10s, respectively. While only Johnson has a win, Mears does look like the oddball at Hendrick — and may very well end up the odd man out.
With many drivers reportedly looking for greener pastures, it’s been persistently hinted at that the No. 25 will be up for grabs. With three other teams in the top twelve in points, how long can Rick Hendrick put up with the weakest cog in the wheel? A ride at HMS, whose teams dominated last year, finishing first and second in points, would be a coup for any driver, and there are some outstanding ones currently looking for a ride of that caliber. Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, and Martin Truex, Jr. are among those reported to be looking for new digs next year. Stewart is a two-time champion, and the others are all proven winners. With those enticing options, which one should fill the seat of the No. 5 in 2009?
The answer is Casey Mears.
Why? Mears’ numbers are deceptive, for one thing. He was the best of the Hendrick Motorsports stable in the late going of the Daytona 500; in that one, it looked like Mears had a car that could win it until a spotter error caused him to crash in the closing laps. Otherwise? It’s hard to speculate, but it could well have been the No. 5 in Daytona USA right now. The next week at California, NASCAR made a terrible call to start the race on a wet track and Mears was the victim, hitting a wet spot and spinning — taking Earnhardt with him on that one. More recently, another spotter error ended a strong run at Richmond; with a little luck on his side, Mears could have three or four Top 5 finishes by now.
Here’s another consideration: Mears is with his fourth team in four years. Though he’s been with only two owners in his Sprint Cup career, Mears was bounced from the No. 41 to the 42 at Chip Ganassi Racing when sponsor Target wanted Reed Sorenson behind the wheel in 2006. He moved to HMS the following season, and after one year in the No. 25, Mears was bounced to the No. 5 car. Geez … the guy must dream of being a pinball at night. The irony is that Mears was hitting his stride in the No. 41 in late 2005, nearly winning twice – but then promptly got moved to a new team, with a new crew chief to learn to communicate with. He moved to Hendrick a year later, and came on like gangbusters late in the season – just before another team shift. Alan Gustafson is a great head wrench at the No. 5, and Mears loves working with him; but driver/crew chief relationships don’t happen overnight, and Mears and Gustafson are still on the upside of a long learning curve. Still, the cars are getting better, and there’s no reason that Mears can’t heat up this summer like he did one year ago.
Mears is a great fit at Hendrick for one more reason – his personality. Mears isn’t looking to be numero uno in a stable that already has three of them; in fact, he’s just as happy to the guy in the background who does his job and does it right. He’s laid back, and is one of the most fan-friendly drivers you could ever hope to find. Mears is at his souvenir rig signing autographs on race morning virtually every week, and one of his concerns when he came to HMS was that he’d still have time for that. By far the most outgoing of the Hendrick drivers, Mears enjoys spending time with his fans; and that in itself is good PR in a NASCAR where increasing sponsor demands keep many drivers from the level of interaction that fans enjoyed a decade or more ago. Mears is personable and has a sense of humor that he seems willing to show, a far cry from his more reserved teammates.
Mears is also the polar opposite of Jimmie Johnson, the reigning two-time champion who is his teammate at HMS. Mears is as relaxed in the car in situations where Johnson is emotional; that’s not to say that Mears isn’t just as passionate as Johnson, though. He’s not just as much a bulldog behind the wheel; but the ultra-laidback Mears balances the hyperemotional Johnson. The two are close friends off the track, and have known one another since neither was old enough to drive a street car. It’s not bad to have that kind of balance on a team. Mears is also friends with Jeff Gordon, and has a budding friendship with Earnhardt as well. His get-along-with-everyone personality is a part of the team chemistry often overlooked.
While there are more talented drivers in the garage than Mears, his fit at HMS is undeniable. Tossing Stewart into the mix might well mean too many cooks. Newman has been criticized for being stingy with information, and is unlikely to embrace the open-book policy that Hendrick Motorsports thrives on. Biffle is likely to remain at Roush Fenway or head to a team like Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated, where he can rebuild a team to his own style. And Martin Truex is Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s close friend. While that could potentially reap benefits, what kind of team chemistry would it create to replace Johnson’s best friend with Earnhardt’s? Some things are best not meddled with on a personal level.
Casey Mears said recently that he’s good through 2009 at Hendrick Motorsports. Still, the rumor mill grinds his name out almost daily, and that is hard to ignore. There are a lot of drivers looking for a new deal for 2009 and beyond, and all will command top rides and top money. Many will look to be the best fit in a new team.
But the best fit for Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 5 is already in the car.
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