Admit it, you always wanted to be invisible. How cool would it be for a day to cruise around unnoticed, going where you like (Boys’ locker room? Cheerleaders’ changing room? Nextel Cup garage?) and not being seen? You could do anything you wanted, right? Just slide in while nobody’s paying attention and reap the benefits of staying beneath the radar. OK, so most of us never got to test out this superpower. Invisibility might not work out for you and me, but it seems to be agreeing just fine with Casey Mears.
Mears has certainly been NASCAR’s Invisible Man this year, often overshadowed by his own Hendrick Motorsports teammates, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, reigning champ Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, who grabs headlines with his less-than-stellar attitude when he isn’t grabbing them on the track. And with Dale Earnhardt Jr. coming on board next year in Busch’s place, it’s not exactly going to turn the spotlight in Mears’s direction. But that hasn’t hurt the resilient Mears any.
Here’s a note to those who haven’t noticed Mears lately: Open your eyes!
Despite an inauspicious start to the season (he was struggling to stay in the Top 35 in points as late as May), Mears began a slow burn that has found him sizzling this autumn. It began when a fuel-mileage gamble paid huge dividends, netting Mears his first career win in the Coca-Cola 600. True to Mears’s low profile, the win was written off by many because of the mileage factor. Its significance wasn’t lost on Mears’s teammate and friend Johnson, who practically tackled Mears in Victory Lane. Johnson, having traveled a similar path to Mears’ to reach this level, got it. But too many fans didn’t get it at all.
The first four years of Mears’s Cup career were quiet as the former up-and-coming open wheeler learned the ropes of full-bodied stock cars with Chip Ganassi Racing. There were a few near misses and a few messy crashes, but in between there was just Mears, quietly learning to be better and better. When Brian Vickers made the decision to leave HMS last year, it opened a door for Mears to the next level of competition – a level where top finishes are the expected return on unlimited resources. And when the summer heated up this year, Mears rose to the occasion. Through one nine-week stretch in June and July, Mears outstripped Johnson in top-10 finishes, and as the summer wound down, it was probably just as well that Mears missed the Chase by a scant handful of points positions.
Just as well for the competition.
Mears was the only driver to post top-10 finishes in the first four Chase races, and rebounded from finishes of 21st and 20th at Charlotte and Martinsville to finish 12th at Atlanta. Oh, and if he had made the Chase? Mears would be sitting pretty in fourth place right now. He’d be ahead of series champions Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth, ahead of Kyle Busch. You’d have to notice him then.
While Mears did not make the Chase, he is slowly climbing into the position of the best of the rest, closing in on Earnhardt Jr. rapidly for 13th position. Mears gained two spots at Atlanta, passing both Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman in the standings, and is just 76 back of Earnhardt with three races left. The 29-year-old driver is thriving in Hendrick equipment, surrounded by his closest friends. He has failed to finish just twice this year, only once due to a crash. (His other DNF was the result of the lone engine failure for all of HMS this year.) But still the invisible man slips under the radar.
But you know what? It works for Mears. He’ll fit in well with the laid-back Earnhardt; one quiet Californian and one quiet North Carolinian in their shared shop will produce a different atmosphere than the more intense Gordon and Johnson pairing next door. But don’t be shocked when Mears is in the top-dozen drivers on the leaderboard regularly in 2008. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise to find Mears in the thick of the Chase with another year at Hendrick under his belt. One more tidbit of food for thought: Mears is the fifth driver to record his first career win in the Coca-Cola 600. The other four went on to be champions. And it’s pretty hard not to notice the guy with the big trophy.