2007 Ride: No. 25 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2007 Primary Sponsor: National Guard
2007 Owner: Rick Hendrick
2007 Crew Chief: Darian Grubb
2007 Stats: 36 races, one win, five top fives, 10 top 10s, one pole, 15th in points.
High Point: Memorial Day weekend has seen a Mears hoist a trophy before: Casey’s uncle, Rick Mears, won the Indianapolis 500 no less than four times in his career. But in 2007, Casey Mears staked his own claim to the Winner’s Circle, grabbing his first career Nextel Cup win in the Coca-Cola 600. Mears’s parents joined him in Victory Lane – as did longtime friend and now-teammate Jimmie Johnson – for one of the most emotional celebrations of the year. After all, what are friends for?
To the fifth-year driver, the win was a long time coming; but it also served as the turning point of Mears’s first season at Hendrick Motorsports – Mears went from struggling to stay in the coveted Top 35 in owner points to the brink of the Chase.
It was a win to savor… even if Johnson did toilet paper Mears’s motorhome afterwards. After all, what are friends for?
Low Point: Mears might just want to forget everything leading up to that May win. His best finish in the first 11 races was 10th; his average finish, a lowly 29th place. Things got so bad the No. 25 team fell to 35th in points – squarely on the bubble for a qualifying exemption – and critics were openly questioning his hiring at powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. Adding insult to injury, Mears suffered an engine failure at Darlington; amazingly, it’s the only time it happened to a Hendrick car in 2007. With new free agent Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the market at the time, many thought Mears’s days at HMS were numbered; luckily for him, Hendrick released 22-year-old Kyle Busch instead.
Summary: It’s no wonder many critics were predicting that 2007 would be Mears’s only year at HMS. In 2006, Mears began his year by pushing HMS phenom Johnson to victory in the Daytona 500, finishing second. One year later, Mears could only muster a 20th – his best finish in the first four races. A top 10 at Bristol was the only bright spot in those first 11 weeks, and Mears was barely hanging on to a guaranteed starting spot rolling into Charlotte. As that race unfolded, Mears had a top-five car; with a chance for an upset, crew chief Darian Grubb made a late call to stay out on questionable fuel.
The gamble paid off, big time.
Mears won the Coca-Cola 600, starting a summer hot streak that saw him outstrip Johnson in top-five finishes through June and July. In the 25 races after the All-Star Race, Mears averaged a 14th-place finish; and by the time the Chase rolled around, Mears was 16th in points, within shouting distance of the top dozen. And the hot streak didn’t just stop there; he opened the playoffs with four straight top-10 finishes, something not one Chaser could match. In the end, Mears wound up 15th in points, matching the finish of Brian Vickers in the No. 25 one year ago.
2008 Outlook: Mears has a new teammate in the shop in 2008 – none other than Earnhardt Jr., the man who many thought would replace Mears at HMS. Mears and Earnhardt will likely work more closely together than did Mears and his former shopmate Busch, so if they like a similar setup, that relationship could pay dividends.
But the big change for Mears will be his upward shift to the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet. He’ll have Alan Gustafson as his crew chief, leading a team with three wins and two Chase berths in the last two seasons. Meanwhile, former crew chief Darian Grubb returns to the engineering department, a role he relishes and where he’ll be an asset to both teams in the shop.
Mears joined HMS a year ago looking like the kid who’d just been handed a full cookie jar; now, he’s been handed the key to the whole bakery.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: C+
2007 Grade: B-
Editor’s Note: The 2007 season is over, and even the Final Chase exam has come to a close – which means it’s time to give each driver their annual year-end evaluation. For the second straight year, your favorite Frontstretch staff members are giving driver reviews for every full-time wheelman on the circuit, giving you insight into the seasons of anyone from AJ Allmendinger to JJ Yeley.