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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Casey Mears Has Tough Task Ahead Replacing Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin’s ACL surgery could make-or-break his chance at the Chase.

But for his handpicked sub, that same stretch of races could make-or-break his career.

Casey Mears was selected Saturday to sub for Hamlin while he recovers from ACL surgery. It’s a deal that came together in just a few days, but one Mears knows could relaunch a fledgling Cup career after going 1-for-6 in making races with underfunded Keyed-Up Motorsports – a deal that ended with a DNQ Friday.

“It’s just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” he said. “It’s one of those deals where I could just be sitting on the pit box if Denny feels pretty good, but if he doesn’t it’s just a great opportunity to possibly get in a good car.”

It’s also a chance to pair with an organization that would one day like to expand to four teams. Ironically, a contraction from four to three cost Mears his last major ride in the sport, released from Richard Childress Racing after sponsorship failed to materialize for the No. 07. That left him a free agent after 252 starts in the series, collecting one win (the 2007 Coca-Cola 600 with Rick Hendrick). Yet shockingly enough, despite his availability the only man to drive for three of the sport’s big-name car owners – Childress, Hendrick, and Chip Ganassi – hadn’t ever had a conversation with JD Gibbs until this week.

“You see him in passing, and it’s hi, hello, but I’ve never really spoken with those guys,” he said. “So it’s an opportunity for me to just kind of get to know those guys a little bit, and you never know what the future holds.”

Hamlin had high praise for Mears in his press conference Saturday morning, calling him “the best option to get a good finish” of all the drivers available in case he falters. If Hamlin’s pain is overwhelming, the plan would be to run to the first caution, then have Mears take over for as many races as possible until his recovery’s complete.

“I think it means a lot to think your peers think of you that way,” he claimed. “I think that hopefully if I can get in there, I can do a good job for them, and keep them in the running for where they want to be.”

The end-goal is the Chase, of course, something Mears has never made but now is placed is the unenviable position of accomplishing that mission for someone else.

“It is strange,” he said. “I was thinking about that the other night. What a totally different role than what I’ve been used to the last seven years. Just totally focused on myself and how am I going to get my team and myself in position to do well.”

“Now, it’s one of those deals that you’re filling in for somebody you usually compete against, trying to help him out. But Denny’s a good guy. I met him early on, when he first came over here in the Nationwide Series, and obviously he’s got a lot of talent. He’s in a good position, and I feel fortunate to be able to go and do that.”

In the meantime, Mears’s relationship with Keyed-Up is expected to continue once his subbing is complete. He claims owner Raymond Key will run in the interim, although no driver has been selected to sub for him in the No. 90 as of yet.

“I still want to run with those guys some more,” he said. “Hopefully, I can get through this year and get something going rolling positive for 2011.”