2008 Ride: No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2008 Primary Sponsors: Kellogg’s/CARQUEST/Cheez-It
2008 Owner: Rick Hendrick
2008 Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
Stats: 36 races, 0 wins, 1 top five, 6 top 10s, 5 DNFs, 20th in points
Best Finish: Fifth (Infineon – June)
Average Finish: 22.1
High Point: Casey Mears is underrated as a road-course driver — never quite considered a top road racer — but like fellow Bakersfield, Calif. native Kevin Harvick, he’s quietly good at right turns. Mears’ fifth-place run at Sonoma in June was his best finish of the year, outperforming best friend, teammate, and eventual champion Jimmie Johnson as well as new teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Mears is also strong at tiny, quirky Martinsville, where he posted finishes of seventh and sixth in ’08. That his best finishes of the season came on two of the most difficult racetracks to master hints that Mears has more ability than his overall disappointing season would suggest at first glance.
Low Point: Late in the going in the Daytona 500, Mears had the strongest Hendrick Motorsports machine and was running smoothly in the middle lane with just six laps remaining in the season opener. He was well clear on the outside, and making a move up there looked as though it could propel him to the front of the field when it counted the most. Unfortunately, Mears’ spotter waited to clear his driver… and waited, and waited, for nearly half a lap. When he finally told Mears to move to the outside lane, another car had moved up too close – and what might have been a race-winning pass turned into a race-ending crash. Mears might have done well to look for a new spotter at that point – at least twice more in the season, Mears was cleared when he shouldn’t have been, resulting in wrecks each time.
Summary: After a year in the former No. 25, Mears took over the driver’s seat in the No. 5 car for HMS, replacing Kyle Busch. In doing so, he slid into a team that made the Chase in 2007, but didn’t get the job done in 2008. And while you can’t put all the blame for his team’s performance on Mears (many key players and some equipment was shuffled to Earnhardt Jr.’s new car), much of the responsibility does lie with the driver; and after a drop to 20th in the season-ending points standings, Mears was let go in favor of Mark Martin for the 2009 season.
This year was Mears’s fourth straight with a new team, and you have to wonder how negative an effect this has had on the Californian. After a 2007 season in which he showed real promise, 2008 was one disappointment after another. After his Daytona wreck, Mears became the victim of a soaked Auto Club Speedway — the first to wreck on a surface that nobody had any business racing on in the first place. Five races in, Mears had three finishes of 35th or worse and was simply struggling to hold his team within the Top 35 in owner points. While a top 10 at Martinsville stopped the bleeding temporarily, things never improved to the point he would become a serious contender for the Chase over the spring and summer.
While most of the season was forgettable, Mears did have some bright spots, mostly on tracks of a mile or less where he showed that he knows how to wheel a car. But in a sport where consistency brings glory, this driver never found a rhythm.
2008 Team Ranking: Fourth. Mears was the only Hendrick Motorsports driver not to make the Chase in 2008, and the one to have his team cherry-picked to build HMS’ other crews as a result.
Off Track News: Mears became a father for the first time in 2008 when he and girlfriend Trisha Grablander welcomed daughter Samantha Mae into the world.
2009 Outlook: Mears will be with his fifth new team in a row in 2009; but this time, the pressure is turned up a notch. Signed during the Silly Season craze this fall, Mears will get into the No. 07 Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet at Richard Childress Racing this season. The move joins him with a team that put three cars in the Chase for the second straight year in 2008; the No. 07 finished no lower than fifth in the standings during that same time period with former driver Clint Bowyer.
So, Mears once again takes the reins of a team which made the playoffs – but this time, the entire team remains intact with proven equipment. That was not the case in 2008, when Mears took over the No. 5 but lost cars and several key crew members to teammate Earnhardt Jr. That means the bar is set high for him in the RCR camp; but should Mears clear it, he could be sitting pretty-pretty enough to make the Chase and the trip to New York. And if he limbos under the bar? There won’t be many excuses left.
All in all, Mears desperately needs the chance to gel with a team. He needs to perform at a high enough standard to keep him with the No. 07 for more than one season; so while a Chase berth shouldn’t be the ultimate indicator, consistency and a top-15 points finish should be. That’s a goal Mears has shown he can meet, and if the stars align, look for 2009 to be the start of better things for one of NASCAR’s most likable drivers.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: C+.
2007 Grade: B-.
2008 Grade: D.