One third of the way through Sunday’s race, it looked like a little luck was shining Casey Mears’s way. Just days removed from a crushing blow to his career, he looked to follow up his pending release from Hendrick Motorsports with an upset trip to victory lane.
He almost had it, too… with the keyword being almost.
After a crucial decision by crew chief Alan Gustafson to gain track position by staying out during a lap 87 caution, Mears assumed the lead and wound up pacing the field for a total of 53 laps – 52 more than he’d led the entire 2008 season to date. As the laps clicked off and the No. 5 car held firm, it looked for an instant that Mears would pull the shock of the year. But his team cost him the top spot during a lap 140 caution for debris, and he never worked his way back up to the front of that pack. Instead, the team was forced to use pit strategy later in the day, pitting on lap 219 to guarantee them enough fuel to the finish – and due to a late spate of cautions, the luck of the draw gave Mears the track position he needed to come home seventh, giving him consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time all year.
Too bad those back-to-back runs are a classic case of too little, too late.
Two days following the public announcement of the end of his tenure at HMS – Mears will be released following the season – he’s done building a foundation and busy figuring out where it all got torn apart. It was a relationship hyped to the hilt when it first came about just two short years ago, when Hendrick plucked him from the gutter of Chip Ganassi Racing to be the answer to his dreams of a four-car powerhouse. Indeed, after Brian Vickers was released, most hoped Mears – coming in with four years of experience under his belt – was exactly the man to turn the dreaded No. 25 team around and compete with the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and then-teammate Kyle Busch. With best friend Johnson right around the corner, it seemed the stability for Mears to grow and prosper would finally be in place.
Instead, the 30-year-old fell flat on his face from the very second he stepped into the seat. A 20th in Daytona was followed by four finishes of 28th or worse in the next five races, and just like that, Mears went from the penthouse to the doghouse last year. Out of the top 30 in points by March, it took an unlikely win at the Coca-Cola 600 to temporarily quell panicked rumors of his departure. A sizzling summer led to a decent comeback, but Mears never fully recovered; failing to make the Chase, he finished 15th in the final standings.
That made 2008 a make-or-break year for Mears… and he broke. Switching to the more prestigious No. 5 operation on the heels of the organization’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. pickup, Mears is doing worse, not better. He’s got just one top five and four top-10 finishes through 17 races – well off his total of five and 10 last year, respectively. Currently, he sits 23rd in points and once again will spend September watching the playoffs as an outsider; and of course, all this disappointment comes despite being paired with one of the sport’s bright young crew chief minds in Alan Gustafson. At the same time, Junior has passed the Hendrick test with flying colors, taking Mears’s old team to third in the standings while already matching its win total for ’07 just 17 races into the season.
But Mr. Popularity wasn’t Mears’s biggest problem; for when you look back on this tenure with Hendrick, I pin his failure not on a lack of talent but of a knack of wasting those few opportunities that did come. There were the final laps of this year’s Daytona 500, where Mears was running in the top five before a poor spotter decision sent him drifting up into Tony Stewart – and into the wall – with less than five laps to go. There was the race at Talladega the April before that, where Mears appeared to be the class of the field until an untimely bump and run by none other than Johnson ended his day before the stretch run.
Ironically, it’s Mears’s need to “stretch” that has him struggling in the new car. He’s reported to Larry McReynolds and several other sources he’s having trouble seeing out of his new cockpit in the readjusted Car of Tomorrow; his height (5’8”) makes him one of the shorter full-time drivers in the series today. Judging by his three DNFs in wrecks already this season – two higher than his total in 2007 – it appears a valid complaint that he’s yet to adjust to over a year into driving this car.
Of course, Mears is never short on personality; he has a reputation as one of the most universally liked drivers in the garage on a personal level, friends with both rookies and veterans, Ford and Chevy drivers alike. But for as nice a guy as he can be, personality alone can’t cut it in this business. All the kind words can’t keep Mears from losing it in the rain in California, and a lifelong friendship from Johnson can’t protect him from ugly on-track incidents like the one with Michael Waltrip at Richmond this May. And even that famous name doesn’t cover the stat that says 0-for-2 in Chase appearances while driving what’s arguably the best equipment in the business.
No matter which way you slice it, Mears failed on talent; and in the end, that’s why he’s about to be unemployed. Surprisingly enough, in this business poor performance can still make a difference, and you can only say the word “almost” just so many times to your boss before it finally falls on deaf ears.