This is uncharted territory for Casey Mears. The driver who has piloted entries for Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing throughout his seven-year career has never had to race his way into the Daytona 500 via the Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races.
Signed for six races with newly founded Keyed-Up Motorsports, Mears must try to do the near impossible and get the start-up team into the Top 35 in owner points after five events, starting with this weekend’s Daytona 500. It’ll be a tall task for an underfunded team that just announced its crew chief and driver one month ago.
“It’s different here… you’ve got to have a car that handles these days at Daytona. It used to be with the old car we’d run 15 laps wide-open around this place before we had to start lifting and the tires wore. I’m seeing guys now get four or five laps in and start to peddle it,” Mears said about the importance of handling in today’s second Duel 150 where he starts 20th.
“I’d almost feel better if it was Talladega in a way – as far as qualifying in and racing in – just because if you pick the right holes you’re on an equal playing field with everybody. When you come to Daytona these days you need a car that can handle. That’s going to be the number one thing we need to work on.”
One benefit for Keyed-Up is its experienced driver-crew chief combination. Crew chief Doug Richert brings to the team a Cup championship with Dale Earnhardt and 10 Cup wins with Greg Biffle, while Mears brings his seven years of Cup experience with three of the series’ top organizations.
But for Mears the switch from fully-funded organization to start-up team brings more of a change than just equipment. No longer is he just a driver – now he is counted on to utilize his experience and help the team get up to speed as soon as possible.
“My role changes for sure. I think when you go into an RCR or a Hendrick Motorsports you’re just another piece to the puzzle,” he said. “In one of these deals they’re leaning on me a lot to get the job done and also to give them advice on what they need about how the car feels and what I’m looking for. Having the experience is going to help me help get these guys where they need to be quicker.”
After a disappointing season with RCR in 2009, a year in which Mears recorded just four top 10s and finished 21st in points, sponsorship could not be found for the team’s fourth entry and he was forced hit the free agent market. After an offseason of questions about whether he would sign or where he would end up, Mears landed at Keyed-Up Motorsports just one month ago.
With just six races scheduled, however, questions still remain as to what his plans will be come April and May. One option may be to return to Childress if funding can be found for the abandoned fourth team, but the most likely destination may be for another start-up team later in the season similar to Keyed-Up.
“I’ve talked to just about everybody. There’s some possibilities of some things though for 2011 for sure. Some things may open up midseason – there may be some new teams that start up six or eight races in too because there’s still some guys trying to put programs together for 2010 and just couldn’t get it done in time,” Mears said.
“I’ve talked to Richard [Childress] a lot. I know he was wanting to continue running that fourth program and they’re continually searching for sponsorship. If that were to come together maybe there’s a 5-10 race deal there. I’m hoping that a lot of guys view me after these six races, if I don’t get to continue with Keyed-Up Motorsports, as that first guy on the bench that can get the job done. If something opens up, I’ll be there.”
One driver that is sad to see Mears leave the Childress camp is former teammate Clint Bowyer, who knows that it would have been difficult to continue with Mears without sponsorship dollars.
“Sponsorship is just so hard to get right now we’re working hard to just try and find sponsors for that fourth team,” he said. “Casey was a great teammate and a great driver. I know he’s got another opportunity and I wish him the best.”
Mears brings to NASCAR a famous racing name as the son of Roger Mears and the nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears. He’s also a former Sprint Cup winner. But in today’s economic climate none of that really matters if you can’t bring sponsorship dollars to the table and his No. 90 Keyed-Up entry is noticeably without sponsor decals.
But none of that matters this weekend. Plenty of drivers have qualified into the Daytona 500 at longer odds. In a way, Mears prefers to race in instead of qualifying in on time like he’ll have to do at the next five events.
“I don’t think your mindset changes on how you approach racing. But those Fridays are going to be a little bit different qualifying in. The thing that’s going to affect my mindset the most is after practice and whether I feel like I have a realistic shot or if I feel we’re about not to make it,” he admitted. “That’s going to change your approach on how you go and cut that lap on Friday. Once that’s done you can relax and go to racing just like you always do.”
Racing may be what Casey Mears is used to, but trying to race into the Daytona 500 isn’t. Not only does he have the pressure of making the Great American Race, to an extent he also carries the fate of an entire organization that’s looking to get locked into the Top 35 in owner points.
Will he give Keyed-Up Motorsports a jumpstart? We’ll find out.