ESPN’s David Newton reported Wednesday that Brian Vickers will be out of the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota for at least three months, with Casey Mears resuming driving duties again this weekend in the All-Star Race. Mears’s status beyond Charlotte has yet to be determined, but a strong showing at the site of his lone Sprint Cup victory could help propel him to an extended assignment manning the No. 83.
Mears was chosen at the urging of Vickers, and will at least have some time to get properly fitted into the car he will be racing both this weekend and presumably in next Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. But while he is getting the opportunity to race and help out his friend in the process, he also will be able to help to pursue another goal – resuscitate his driving career in NASCAR.
For a racecar driver, there is only one worse thing than being injured – being irrelevant. Mears was on his way to becoming just that, following the disbanding of his No. 07 Richard Childress Racing team once sponsorship could not be secured after Jack Daniel’s left the sport in 2009. Coupled with the fallout from General Motors going belly up, he quickly found himself out of luck in free agency, pairing with a lower-tier ride capable of qualifying for just one of six races before he was released this March.
So now, his future comes down to success at the place where he shocked the world by outlasting the competition on fuel in 2007’s Coca-Cola 600. And Mears knows the importance of his fill-in role behind the wheel; it’s one that can have a career-saving impact lasting far beyond his time in this car. Historically, many Super Subs have made the most out of second chances they had been afforded by top teams in a pinch.
The No. 1 Dale Earnhardt Incorporated machine was one such example of a ride that acted as a fountain of youth, giving the gift of perpetual life for all who have driven it in relief. Steve Park broke his leg in his 1998 rookie season during a vicious blown tire/stuck throttle wreck in Atlanta. The driver pegged to replace him that summer? Dale Earnhardt’s sometimes friend/sometimes nemesis, Darrell Waltrip. DW was on the downside of his career at the time, having had to sell his DarWal operation due to lack of sponsorship. A bad deal with Speedblock combined with waning performance, as technology and the times passed the operation by seemingly overnight during the 1995 season. But three years later, behind the wheel of a DEI Chevy, it wasn’t long until Darrell was back up to speed. He was running up front at Michigan, singing to the crew as he’d go by on the frontstretch, and then coming within a few laps of winning Pocono a week later. Suddenly, the team had a driver who seemed reborn overnight.
“They didn’t put enough dirt on me. Kicked it off of me, crawled back out. I’ve been in holes before, and crawling out of a pretty deep one right now. Damn, this is good,” he said after Pocono. The performance wound up good enough to prolong DW’s career an extra two years, triggering Travis Carter’s expansion to a second team in 1999, although he never again tasted a top-10 finish.
In 2001, Park was injured once again, at Darlington in September after getting T-boned under caution. His replacement this time? Kenny Wallace. Kenny had experienced some success in the Nationwide Series, and the year prior helped push Earnhardt to his final victory at Talladega in Cup, but he never was really in a position to win a race. It was a tough pill to swallow for him, the straggler of a rookie class in 1993 that included future Cup champions Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte.
But behind the wheel of the No. 1, Wallace had a fresh start and a great attitude. With three races left in the season, he won the pole at Rockingham and led 101 laps in the event, finishing second to Joe Nemechek. Wallace would start the season off with DEI again in ’02 until Park’s return at Darlington after the fifth race, pull yeoman’s duty subbing for Kevin Harvick at Martinsville after he was suspended following an incident in that weekend’s Truck event, then work his way into the Bill Davis No. 23 machine he would drive for all of 2003. While maintaining his status as primarily a Nationwide Series competitor, Wallace would go on to sub for Kurt Busch following his early ouster from Roush Racing at the end of the 2005 season, and then Ricky Rudd following an accident at California Speedway that resulted in a separated shoulder in ’07.
So sometimes, interim drivers make the most of their situations, and are able to parlay it into something much bigger than they may have thought possible.
Many people recognize Robby Gordon as the owner/driver of the No. 7 Toyota. He’s known as the road-course ace, off-road desert wheelman extraordinaire, the guy who will stand in a pack of traffic just to fire a helmet at Michael Waltrip and call him a “piece of $h!t” on television moments later. But what they may not know is that Robby early on was a substitute driver, first being plugged into longtime Ford runner Junie Donleavy’s No. 90 machines for a pair of races in 1990 at the then remarkably young age of just 22 years old. Three years later, he would shoulder the task of piloting Davey Allison’s No. 28 Havoline Ford for Robert Yates Racing in front of the Alabama Gang’s faithful fans, following Allison’s death in a helicopter crash arriving at the track just two weeks earlier.
In 2001, Gordon would replace Skinner in Richard Childress’s No. 31 Chevrolets during what had been a heart-wrenching year for everybody within the organization – and the sport. Skinner would suffer injuries at Chicagoland Speedway that year, and then once again at Darlington later that summer, forcing him from the car after requiring knee surgery (don’t tell Denny Hamlin). During the time between Skinner’s two incidents, Gordon was well on his way to winning at Watkins Glen until the telemetry box for NBC malfunctioned and started an electrical fire in the No. 31 car. Later that year, however, he got a second chance. There was a make-up date for a rained out Loudon, postponed from the days after September 11th and run as the official final race of the season on Thanksgiving weekend.
What resulted from it was some Gordon on Gordon crime, as Robby nudged Jeff a bit through turns 3 and 4 with 15 to go, claiming his first career win and his only one to date on an oval. Not surprisingly, he remained the full-time driver of the No. 31 the next year – a ride he held until the end of the 2004 season.
Speaking of Skinner, he, too, was called into action to help a fellow driver who was seriously injured. In 2003 at Richmond, Jerry Nadeau suffered severe head trauma during a driver’s side wall slap in practice with his U.S. Army Pontiac. It was an accident that would all but end his driving career, but served to revive Skinner’s. After several seasons at RCR that never quite produced expected results, Skinner posted a 31st-place points finish in 2002 driving the iconic No. 4 Kodak Chevrolets of Morgan-McClure Racing. He would drive the first half of 2003 in the Kodak car, but got let go after failing to qualify for the June race at Michigan.
It was then he would keep his Cup career alive, filling in for 12 races at the controls of Nadeau’s No. 01 MB2 Racing machines while winning a pole at Richmond in the fall – the very same track that nearly claimed the life of their former driver months earlier. That left him perfectly positioned for a top ride in 2004, when he became the face of Toyota’s foray into NASCAR, driving Bill Davis’s No. 5 factory-sponsored flagship entry in the Truck Series. The 1995 Series champion, Skinner would go on to post eight more wins in the Trucks, narrowly missing out a second title in 2007 to Ron Hornaday Jr.
With the Bill Davis operation dissolving following teammate Johnny Benson’s 2008 championship season, Skinner then served as a consultant of sorts for Team Red Bull’s other entry, the No. 84 machine wheeled by AJ Allmendinger. The duo had been struggling mightily and missing races with regularity; but after Skinner’s stint with the program, the ‘Dinger found himself running for top-10 finishes. To this day, despite a full-time Truck ride with Randy Moss Motorsports he’s still considered a “super sub” with the potential to get the job done in Cup if necessary.
I guess it’s still not a bad way to make few hundred thousand dollars working weekends, right?
So the chance for Mears to work himself back into a top-tier ride in the Cup Series is no doubt not lost on him. With Vickers out of his car for at least the next three months, Mears has time to get acclimated to his surroundings, get comfortable in the car and earn another shot at a return to relevance in NASCAR competition.
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