Three years ago, Casey Mears was on cloud nine. He was driving for NASCAR’s biggest powerhouse team, Hendrick Motorsports. His stock was on the way up, and Mears capitalized, winning his first career Sprint Cup race with a victory in the Coca-Cola 600, a race where first-time winners are a rarity, and the ones who do get their first victory have all gone on to be champions. Mears shared victory lane with a driver who has been there a time or two, but never like this – his best friend Jimmie Johnson. His friends also “helped” Mears celebrate – by toilet papering his motor coach afterwards. It’s great to have good friends… Mears was a winner, on his way up in the NASCAR world with arguably its best team.
Fast forward to 2010, and early this month Mears was left wondering if he would be in NASCAR at all.
Mears left HMS after the 2008 season; he had several good finishes with Hendrick after that Coca-Cola 600 win, but never earned more wins or a Chase berth during his tenure. He landed with Richard Childress Racing, an organization with a history of making the Chase and winning races, but was faced with his fifth new crew chief and team in as many years, then his sixth after Childress swapped crews internally in an attempt to improve a lackluster season. Unable to find consistency, Mears found himself the odd man out when RCR lost sponsorship from Jack Daniel’s and was unable to secure another one for the No. 07 team in time for the 2010 season. Mears was left waiting on a phone call in the offseason, and wondering if and when that call might come.
“It’s been a frustrating start to the season, for sure,” said Mears at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday. “Things were going so well at RCR last year, and when Jack Daniel’s pulled out it just left us all wondering what we were going to do. We had talked about running the first five races this year, but it pretty much just ended up all going away. So when we started the season, it got to be January, and the realization hit. I went and got married in early January, got back and went, hmmm, I need to find a job!”
Mears would get the call, but it was from startup Keyed-Up Motorsports. New teams have struggled mightily in recent years, and Mears’s new team found itself at Daytona without sponsorship. They missed five of the first six races in 2010, only making the show at Bristol. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but the situation reminded Mears of his early years in racing, when funding was always a struggle; it always meant working twice as hard to bring the money in. “It’s definitely not the first time in my career – I did it (looking for sponsors) coming up the ranks,” he said. “You work hard, and you’re beating the pavement meeting all the people you can and trying to get a job to get to the point that I’m at now. It’s funny, because when it all went away I started remembering about what it was like 10 years ago when I was trying to find a job.”
The sponsor didn’t come, and the ride did go away. Mears was on standby for Denny Hamlin for a couple of weeks after knee surgery, but Hamlin never relinquished the car. Next, Mears landed at the No. 36 of Tommy Baldwin Racing and promptly brought the team its best start of 2010, a 13th-place at Richmond. But they failed to qualify for the Southern 500 at Darlington, with Mears wrecking in practice. A long, hard road loomed ahead.
And then the phone call came.
It was Mears’s close friend Brian Vickers. Mears had replaced Vickers at Hendrick after Vickers left to upstart Team Red Bull. And now, Mears would replace Vickers again.
It’s hard to find someone with a bad word to say about Casey Mears. His reputation as a nice guy is well-deserved; he’s personable and genuine. Signing autographs isn’t a chore for Mears. As a driver, he’s solid and careful, and it’s rare that he doesn’t bring home a racecar in one piece. It’s rarer still for the wrecked ones to be his fault. He’s aggressive when he needs to be, and a team player as well. There are factions among the media who question his prowess behind the wheel, but none who criticize him personally. Mears left a promising open-wheel career for NASCAR, and one thing that has kept him here is friendship. It was because of one such friendship that Mears will race in a top ride for the foreseeable future.
When Vickers called Mears on the Wednesday night before Dover, it was to tell Mears that Vickers was in the hospital. The two chatted about that for a few minutes, and then Vickers asked his friend a favor. “He said, ‘Looks like I’m not going to be able to drive,’ and asked if I’d get in,” says Mears. “I think he knew the answer; I was sitting there waiting to do anything.”
Mears said yes, and though the ride didn’t come under circumstances he’d have ever wished for, it was a blessing. “Obviously, it feels good,” he explained. “If the roles were reversed, I’d think the exact same thing. Obviously, he’s a good friend and obviously, he’s very talented, so I would think the same way if I could. I’d always been on these guys anyway, wanting to get over here and do something, so it worked out pretty good.”
Mears and Vickers haven’t had much of an opportunity to share notes before, and the two, along with the No. 83 Red Bull team, are working hard to find how both drivers’ styles mesh. “Honestly, I really don’t know,” says Mears when asked if the two have a similar style. “What we’d have to do is do a test together, lay over some data, and see if what I like is what he likes. That’s what’s hard to decide right now: are our driving styles that different? Are their setups just that different? Did things change from the test to the race, the tires? There are so many variables that right now are just guesses more than anything else. We’re trying to sort it all out.”
Mears isn’t on his own. Vickers coached his friend in the All-Star Race, speaking to him between segments. Mears says that Vickers will spend the rest of the season learning to watch races from the sidelines, and that will teach him a lot. Mears knows from experience. “His main role is to get better and to just rest,” he notes. “In the meantime, he’s been wanting to spend some time at the track. The one thing I did tell him was, I sat out some races this year, I sat on some pit boxes and I watched from some different angles; it’s amazing how much you learn by actually watching from a different perspective. So he’s going to be doing that throughout the year and obviously offering any advice he can along the way.”
Mears and Vickers go a long way back. They met as rookies in the then-NASCAR Busch Series. “It was my first year and he was running a partial schedule, I think it was a family team,” he said. “We ran into each other at an appearance at Texas and hit it off. We ended up going out to dinner and hanging out. We just ended up being friends from there.”
Mears introduced Vickers to some of his other friends, too. “Jimmie Johnson and Jeff [Gordon] and I were all pretty good friends, and I got to know Ricky Hendrick at the same time,” he reminisced. “Shortly after that, I introduced Brian to all those guys. We all became a pretty close group, and hung out quite a bit.”
Once, Mears and Vickers’s love of speed got the pair into a predicament. A popular new water toy a few years back was a “kite tube,” which is basically a modified inner tube that, when pulled on the tow bar of a boat, is meant to hover a few feet above the surface of the water. They didn’t stick around too long on account of being dangerous; turns out they tended to get a lot higher than a couple of feet. Which is where the trouble started. Mears said later the trouble started when the tube, with Vickers on it, got high enough that Mears couldn’t see it through the boat’s canopy. And then the crash happened. “I thought I killed him, to be honest,” admits Mears. “It scared me to death. That thing took off and got a little out of control. He landed upside down and I thought I killed the poor guy. It was a scary moment.” Vickers survived, of course, somewhat worse for the wear, ending the day on Mears’s couch with a makeshift ice pack for his bruises.
Things have changed since then – Mears and Johnson are both married, and Mears has a young daughter. But the three remain close. “We always had a good time and still do,” he explains. “I’m married now and have a wife and kid, so it’s not running around with the guys the way we did the last couple of years. We still have a close friendship. He was one of the groomsmen in my wedding, so we’re pretty close.”
Another close friend of Mears is four-time champion Jimmie Johnson, whom Mears met years ago. The two were teammates briefly, then went their separate ways as Mears went to open-wheeled cars while Johnson learned to drive stock cars. But they remained close, and eventually both found their way to the NASCAR ranks. “Shoot, I think I met Jimmie when I was about 12,” Mears said of a friendship now spanning nearly 20 years. “We used to race off-road together. We were teammates when I was 16. I don’t know what that made him – maybe 18, 19, something like that. We were teammates in the Mickey Thompson off-road stuff, so we’ve been close for a long time. We had a lot of fun in the off-road stuff. There were a few years where I went open-wheel racing and he was doing off-road and then went racing stock cars, and we kept in touch about two or three times a year. If he had a bad crash, I’d call him and see how he was doing and if I had a bad crash, he’d call and see how I was doing. When I moved back here, we got really close again really fast.”
The two remain friends, and Mears says that while he might race Johnson or Vickers a little differently than he races some guys, it’s not exactly in the way observers might expect. “I think [I race them] almost a little bit more aggressive at times. The assumption from everybody out there is that you’re just going to give your friend a lot of room, and you don’t want people to think that! So you go out and you maybe race them a little bit harder. It’s that same deal. A lot of these guys, you don’t have to go back and see later. I’ve got to go back and see him later, and I don’t want to know that he got the best of me. So you maybe race those guys a little harder than normal.”
Mears also adds that the occasional tangle doesn’t really change things. When Johnson accidentally turned his race leading then-teammate at Talladega, Mears says both knew it was a misunderstanding. “That was just a complete mistake,” he admitted. “A complete misunderstanding between the teams. Communication – we thought we had it all sorted out, and we didn’t.”
And a few weeks later, Mears found victory lane at Charlotte. Johnson was one of the first people to arrive at the celebration, looking as thrilled as if he’d won the race himself. Mears remembers the moment well. “We’re not just friends, we’re very, very close friends. In a lot of ways, he feels more like a brother. He’s one of those guys that we can go for months, not really talk a lot, and then see each other, not miss a beat, and never be mad that we didn’t talk. We’re really close and really tight. Having him come to victory lane was just like having my brother walk in. It was a really cool deal.”
And then Johnson helped toilet paper his motorhome.
Friendships have always been important to Mears – his friends are in NASCAR, and it’s in NASCAR that Mears wants to stay, even through his struggles of early this year. It was out of friendship that Mears’s season was given a second chance – expectations are that he’ll remain in the No. 83 in 2010, with the possible exception of the road course events. Should he find victory lane, it’s likely he won’t be there alone for long. He might want to keep an eye on his coach, though. It’s good to have friends.