The Cool Down Lap · Doug Turnbull · Monday May 17, 2010
“Way to fight there, bud.”
These were the first words relayed to Casey Mears by crew chief Ryan Pemberton after the checkered flag flew for Sunday’s Autism Speaks 400 Presented by Hershey’s at Dover International Speedway. Mears, filling-in for the suddenly ill Brian Vickers, had an intense battle indeed in the No. 83 car. As top contenders Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch murdered the field and wasted no time lapping normally fast racecars, Mears battled a poorly handling Red Bull Toyota. Qualified a paltry 39th, Mears began his stint with his fourth different Sprint Cup team in 2010 behind the eight ball, having to continue adjusting his driving style in a racecar setup for Vickers and drive with enough urgency to keep from going a lap down. But Mears did Sunday what he has made a habit of doing through his tumultuous career – endure.
Casey Mears’ career path has been well-chronicled. He entered 2010 having driven for five different race teams at three different race organizations in the last five years. Each one of those seasons ended with both promise, looking ahead toward his next racing opportunity, and speculation as to why his results were so mediocre with the team he was leaving.
Since Mears broke into the Sprint Cup Series in 2003, has had decent equipment under him most of the time. He drove his first four seasons in Chip Ganassi’s Dodges, before making the jump to Hendrick Motorsports for the 2007 season. His HMS tenure saw him moved from the No. 25 to the No. 5 to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and then bumped out from the No. 5 in favor of Mark Martin. Mears then ran for RCR in 2009 and likely would have continued there, but Richard Childress had to shut down the No. 07 when Jack Daniel’s decided to end its sponsorship of team.
Once again, Mears entered 2010 with a new race team (if he could find one), meaning he would start another season sharpening communication skills with a different crew chief, learning the idiosyncrasies of new race equipment, and repeating a new sponsor and car number on TV.
With few rides on the market last offseason, Mears aligned himself with newly-formed Keyed-Up Motorsports and the No. 90 Chevy. But breaking into the Cup ranks is extraordinarily difficult , especially for an underfunded team with two-year old equipment. Mears timed into only one race for the team, finishing 30th at Bristol, and departed from the No. 90 after failing to qualify at Martinsville. However, he had already been offered the opportunity to be a standby driver for Martinsville winner Denny Hamlin, who would be recovering from ACL surgery at the next race in Phoenix. While Mears practiced the car and waited upon the No. 11’s pit box, he never was summoned and his services were obviously not needed, as Hamlin won the following week at Texas.
After a brief stint in Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 Chevy where Mears turned in a decent 26th place finish at Richmond but then failed to qualify at Darlington, Mears was geared up to run the TBR Chevy again this weekend. But a phone call on Thursday from good friend Brian Vickers, whom Mears replaced at Hendrick Motorsports, changed his original plans.
Vickers asked Mears if he would run his car, a request formally brought forth by Red Bull Racing Team GM Jay Frye the next day, after doctors informed Vickers that the medical condition he was hospitalized for would not be resolved in time for the race at Dover Sunday. With such short notice, Mears had no time to extract his fitted seat from the No. 36 or have other elements in the No. 83 that were suited better for Vickers changed—like the pedals. But the learning curve one experiences with a new crew is all too old for Mears.
Friday was a day of adjustment, not speed, for Mears and the No. 83 team. They practiced 32nd and qualified 39th, but made enough changes to climb to 15th on the charts in the first practice on Saturday and 27th in Happy Hour. With the concrete surface at Dover only a mile in length, Mears knew he would have to be up on the wheel, if he wanted to stay out of the clutches of the early leaders. Unfortunately for Mears and the team, the car was stagnant through the first couple of runs Sunday. He improved several positions, with the help of a few start and parkers, and hung in about the 28th position for most of the day, complaining of a tight condition through much of each corner. Mears, like several other drivers, also complained about how the rubber buildup harmed his car’s handling.
Some drivers in Mears’ position Sunday would have thrown in the towel. Why bother even trying to get the racecar dialed in, if it is starting so far back and now not running for a championship? Why care about the finish, if you are a lap down early and you are only the temporarily driver?
But for Mears, this unfortunate turn of circumstances for his friend Vickers is ray of hope and survival for him. Solid runs in decent, but sometimes struggling equipment could spark notice amongst owners looking to bolster midseason performance. With potential rides available at Richard Petty Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports, and any of the vacant start and park teams, if sponsorship is obtained, Mears could revive a NASCAR career that has been on near life support this year.
Mears’ care for his finish was obvious, as he meticulously dialed-in to Pemberton exactly what the car was doing, instead of throwing a fit about its and the crew’s shortcomings.
Mears fought hard, but never over-drove the racecar. Wrecking someone else’s machine in a fill-in role is not the type of blemish one wants smudged on their resume. He instead soldiered on through the long afternoon, as some other contenders fell by the wayside, eventually settling for a 22nd place finish. No speeding penalties, no wrecks.
When I talked with Mears at Atlanta Motor Speedway shortly after his failed qualifying attempt in the No. 90, he spoke with a voice of total frustration and dismay. Just months earlier, he was a member of a fully-funded team. He ran out of a race shop well-stocked with top notch equipment and employees. Now, he sat in his car with his helmet on, likely in disbelief that his career had crumbled to this point.
However, Mears has now become the sport’s most attractive journeyman. Much like David Gilliland was last year – when he scored rides with the Wood Brothers, Robby Gordon, and Joe Gibbs Racing after being released from TRG Motorsports – Mears now has to be part of the conversation amongst mid-level team owners or others in the Nationwide Series looking to improve or extend their programs.
With Vickers out indefinitely, Mears will get a chance to gain exposure for the team during the All-Star weekend and likely the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. If he can string together decent runs in equipment that he is not accustomed to, Mears can again find a seat on the saddle of a Sprint Cup stallion full-time.
Sunday’s race at Dover is evidence that this feat is certainly possible.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.
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