Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Monday May 28, 2007
Casey Mears took the Hendrick Motorsports No. 25 to Victory Lane in the 600-mile race at Charlotte this past weekend. Coming to the checkers with his tank on empty, Mears filled to the brim a winning prediction many people had when he took over that seat at the beginning of this year. Gas mileage or no, for Mears to score a win in this car was no small feat. The No. 25 has had limited success since it debuted for Hendrick; while the team’s other cars have gone on to wins and championships galore, Mears’ car hasn’t scored multiple victories in a season since 1991, when Kenny Schrader won twice in the Kodiak Chevy. Now that Mears has broken the seal on his victory champagne, questions about his future have gone from job security to his ability to lift the “curse” on the No. 25: can he break that 16-year streak, causing victories to pile up for the fourth Hendrick program, or was this win merely a flash in the pan thanks to gas mileage and nothing more?
Considering the history of the No. 25, consistent success would hardly appear to be a foregone conclusion for Mears. This team has long been the red-headed stepchild of Hendrick Motorsports (apologies to Brian Vickers on that one). While Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Jimmie Johnson and recently Kyle Busch have all had success in Hendrick-prepared cars, the fourth team has always seemed to be lacking no matter who’s been driving it. Dallenbach, Nemechek, Schrader, Nadeau, Vickers: the list of drivers comes fully equipped with their fair share of disappointments. Whether it has been a matter of chemistry or simply a corporate philosophy that has relegated them to lesser equipment, this team has simply never run consistently up front like the other three team cars.
With Casey Mears having taken over the seat for 2007 and beyond, many of the pundits predicted that the team will finally begin to experience a turnaround, tasting the success that the other teams in the organization have had for so many years. But Mears’ Hendrick debut had been less than stellar during the first four months of the season. Sunday night's victory was only his second Top 10 finish; in fact, Mears has only had one other result that was better than 20th place.
That doesn't tell the whole story, though. Mears is a new driver for the team, and it takes time for the driver and crew chief to understand each other. For instance, the crew chief needs to understand what the driver means when he says a car is loose or tight and how much of an adjustment is necessary to correct that sensation for the driver. That makes the chemistry between Mears and crew chief Darian Grubb the ultimate key to success, and both have found themselves adjusting in their first year on the job. The equipment that the No. 25 has is supposed to be the same as the other three teams have available to them; it is just a matter of getting the team to the point where they can make the car comfortable for their driver so that they can run up front with their other team cars. Of course, it’s hard to do that when luck’s not on your side; it’s easy to forget several of Mears’ stints in the garage this year have been due to wrecks that were not self-inflicted. This win could finally be the type of spark that turns that bad luck around.
Speaking of that “racing luck,” many people are going to look at Mears' victory as a fluke because of the fact that he was able to win the race by stretching his final tank of gas far enough to outlast most of the other cars that had run up front all evening. However, that opinion ignores the fact that Mears was running near the front of the pack all night long. Looking at the lap summary for the entire race, Mears was never lower than 13th at any point, and for the last 220 laps, he was eighth or better. While the team did stretch their final fuel run and ultimately win the race, they were in contention the majority of the evening, and occasionally, when you put yourself in position to win you find that all the breaks end up going your way.
The win proved sweet vindication for Mears, who had been passed on the last restart of the Charlotte Busch race last year at this track, then lost that race a second straight year to Kasey Kahne on Saturday. Of course, there is no question that this was a victory that might not have occurred if not for a strategy that was employed had the team been in the Top 12 in points. But that fact is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things; the bottom line is this team was the first one to cross the finish line, and their names will be the ones engraved on the trophy for the rest of time. Whether it was fuel mileage or just good planning on the part of the team, the No. 25 was in Victory Lane and Casey is now a NASCAR Nextel Cup winner.
Many people questioned Rick Hendrick last year when he went after Mears for this ride, especially considering he had never won a Cup race before. But Mears had been in contention more than once during his four years in the Cup series; it was simply circumstances that had conspired against him to cost him the win. A flat tire at Phoenix not long ago took Mears out when he was running in the top three, and a mysterious caution at Homestead resulted in Mears losing a sizable lead late in a race where he almost certainly was going to win. No doubt, the talent for this kid is certainly there; it’s simply execution that was lacking, that is, of course, until Sunday night.
So, going forward, does this mean that Mears will begin competing for wins on a regular basis? No one knows for sure, but as I’ve shown above, the promise has been there for a long time. Whether Mears will now go on a roll and win several more races or join the list of drivers who have only won a single Cup race in their careers, only time will tell. But people have long felt that Casey Mears has the talent to be a top level driver in the Cup series, and his victory this weekend has finally validated that opinion. Now, it’s up to the team to ride the momentum, erase the tide of history, and simply prove that this victory was not a fluke.
No question about it – that’s no easy task.
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