Racing is a game of highs and lows. That becomes especially apparent looking at the career of Sprint Cup driver Casey Mears. Mears, a third-generation racer from Bakersfield, California, has celebrated in Victory Lane after winning one of the sport’s most prestigious races with one of its premier teams. He’s also gone through the agony of losing his ride to lack of sponsorship and the uncertainty of a year on the fringe, taking whatever rides he could just to stay in the game. From 2005 to 2009, Mears drove for five teams in five years among three different organizations, with five different crew chiefs. The lack of stability was frustrating. Then, late in 2010, Mears was picked up by Germain Racing, a team making its foray into Sprint Cup after being a fixture in the Camping World Truck Series, winning two CWTS titles in 2006 and 2010. The team would find the Cup ranks much more daunting.
In 2011, they would miss the Daytona 500 but worked their way to a guaranteed spot in the field in 2012. Times were still tough; Mears had to park early some weeks as funding was still scarce. But now, that has changed for 2013, with help from sponsor GEICO, and both Mears and the organization have responded to the backer’s confidence with their best on-track performance yet. They’ve been competitive just about every week, even when they had to overcome a disappointing qualifying effort. On Sunday at Martinsville, Mears started 41st, but raced his way into the top 15 before finishing 16th on a late pit gamble that didn’t quite pan out. It still remained his fourth top-20 result, in six events which is something powerhouse driver/team combinations led by Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart can’t say.
What’s made the difference? The 35-year-old sat down with Amy Henderson on Friday after qualifying at Martinsville, where he opened up on his team’s improvement, how hard it really was for them to pull in early the past few years, and what’s next for the No. 13.
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch.com: Germain Racing has come a long way in the last two years and this year in particular. Is there any one thing you can point to that was the turning point, or was it more a lot of things coming together at once?
Casey Mears: It was a lot of things, really. We’ve slowly over the last two or three years gotten more financing. We’ve gotten to work with the same guys for the last few years. We’ve had the opportunity to hire more people to help with things back at the shop. Also, just being with the same manufacturer now for two years in a row. Going into last year, we just found out three weeks from going to Daytona that we were going to Ford, so it was a mad panic to get ready to go. This year, obviously, there were some holdups with the rules, but outside of that, we had chassis, we had parts and pieces and everything ready to go. We had a sim program that we knew and understood. Ford has been a big help this year. They’ve helped us out a little bit more — just everything has kind of gotten better with our whole program.
Henderson: You mentioned that some of the core people with the No. 13 have been together for a while now. Before you came over here, you were with a different crew every year. How does the stability help you, and when is it time to bring in maybe a new guy or two, here and there just to get some new ideas and fresh blood?
Mears: Bootie and I have been great. Having three years together now has really allowed us to understand what the other one is saying a lot more. It’s been the first time in a long time that I’ve had that kind of continuity as a driver. That’s been important. But as far as the team guys staying the same, it’s really good because our guys do a great job making changes in practice in a timely manner and doing it in a safe way. Having those same guys is comforting. At the same time, we have brought some new guys in, shop wise, who have really helped out with preparing cars. Our guys would be on the road and then they’d have to come home, build the cars and then set them up. Now, we’re in position where the guys are just coming home and setting up cars instead of building them because the guys back at the shop are getting that done. It’s a huge time saver.
Henderson: For you and some of the other, smaller teams in the garage, I imagine that’s huge — you have to do all the same work as a Hendrick or Roush, but you have fewer people and less money to do it with. How hard is it for a smaller team to compete at the level you guys are?
Mears: That’s true. I’d say we have to do more work. In some ways, it’s easier to get things together and make good decisions. At the same time, the bigger picture is it’s just not having as much information to draw from. That’s really our biggest deficit at this point, not having that house to draw from as far as information, like previous setups, overlaying some of the data like having a team car would do. A lot of those things are the kind of stuff that we’re missing now. Parts, pieces, people, we have. I know we have great people. I know we can do well because we’ve done a lot better this year. When we mess up like we did [at Martinsville practice/qualifying], we seem to rebound pretty good from it. We did the same thing at Phoenix where we did things, trying a new concept and missed it. We went back to what we knew and ran well. We tend to rebound pretty good. But being a small team, sometimes we have to try things that are out in left field to get better and that’s kind of what we did this week.
Henderson: You finally have enough sponsorship this year to run the full schedule?
Mears: Yes. What happened was GEICO was very influential in making it happen. They stepped up to a level where Bob Germain was able to go ahead and make the full season. So we are doing the full season, but we’re not quite fully-funded. It’s a little tight in some areas, but we’ll be able to run.
Henderson: That must be a weight off your shoulders, not having to pull in early.
Mears: That’s a huge weight off. Last year, we’d have two or three good runs and then have to start and park. We didn’t really realize how tough that was to rebound from and how frustrating. The start and parks just killed us last year, just deflated the team and it was really hard to rebound from. The guys would get frustrated — it was like, “wait a minute, we’re working hard yet, what for? We’re going to have to park.” So, I think mentally, that was a tough process to get through. Having that weight lifted off our shoulders and knowing we’re going to go run all the races definitely set a new tone in the shop.
Henderson: As a competitor, how hard was it for you to hear that call on the radio to pull it in?
Mears: The first time I had to do that was probably one of the hardest things I ever did. I mean, I grasped the concept. I understood that as a whole, it was better for our team and for our program, but the first time I ever did that, I just thought, “What am I doing? What are we doing here?” It was definitely difficult and to have that weight lifted definitely allows us to focus on the things we need to focus on.
Henderson: In your career, you’ve gone from the highest of highs — winning the Coca-Cola 600 with Hendrick Motorsports — to the lowest lows, losing your ride with a top-tier organization. How does that put things in perspective for you when you’re now back in a position where you’re doing well?
Mears: It’s kind of funny; I’ve heard guys say when they’re later in their careers that they’re the best they’ve ever been. You’re sometimes fortunate to get good opportunities, but probably a little too early, you know? Through Bootie and a lot of these guys, we have worked so hard together that I have learned more about the sport and these cars than I ever have in the past couple of years just because of how hard we’ve had to work to make it happen.
Henderson: You seem like you’re really happy with your situation.
Mears: I am, because I’m a big piece of the puzzle here. We all really put our arms around each other and made this deal work. It’s different than being part of a big organization where you can be the third or fourth wheel. We are it. We sit down and we make key decisions, and a lot of times they went in the right direction. It’s probably more gratifying when we do well, for sure.
Henderson: A track like Martinsville — tracks that are kind of different, like the short tracks; the superspeedways, where you guys have done great and been in contention for just about every race lately though you’ve had some bad luck. Are those the weeks you kind of circle on the calendar more than the intermediates?
Mears: The intermediates are more than just horsepower; we make good horsepower, but the little things make such a big difference when you get to those tracks as far as balance and getting the car right. For sure, those have been our Achilles’ heel. We definitely ran better at California this year, and we were happy with the way we ran the Charlotte test. Our days are looking a little brighter at those places. But for sure, when we came to Martinsville, Richmond, Phoenix and definitely the superspeedways, we really thought those are our better opportunities. The short tracks just seem like we’re able to pick a little bit better. It’s funny because of how we qualified today, but again, we were just trying a new concept, trying to get better. We don’t want to stay where we were; we want to get better.
Henderson: How physical a track is Martinsville; how hard is it on a driver?
Mears: It’s one of the more physical tracks, to be sure. I think it’s because of how hard you have to brake here, and the 90-degree corners, obviously. There’s a lot of movement in the car, a lot of rear end grip. But mainly the braking — I’ve finished races here several times when the bottom of my foot would be bruised from pressing the brake the whole time. It’s definitely one of the more physical tracks.
Henderson: And on top of that, you were sick when you ran here last year.
Mears: Yeah, I was miserable. It was weird. I felt great when we started. Well, a little iffy when I started, but the flu was kind of going around and I caught it right in the middle of that race. That’s the worst experience I think I’ve had in a car, for sure. It was nasty. We figured it out okay, but that was a terrible experience, for sure.
Henderson: Did you ever wear that helmet again?
Mears: (Laughs) They cleaned it up pretty good! Yeah; I wore it again.
Henderson: So, what’s next for your team? You’ve gained about ten spots in points in the last year. What’s next?
Mears: All that stuff, really, is maintaining our level of competitiveness this year. We’ve taken a big leap, and we need to show that we can maintain that. The biggest thing that’s difficult throughout the year is that everybody improves. So, by staying the same (in points) you’re actually improving as well. If we can just continue to make small improvements, continue to be as competitive as we are now, we’re going to have those days when we’re a top 10, top-5 contender. We just have to keep knocking down those top 15s, top 20s. If we hone in on that, we’re going to run better than that at times. We just have to keep that in mind and stay within that wheelhouse.
Henderson: What about luck at a place like Talladega?
Mears: At the superspeedways, if we could just finish one of those things out without an issue, in my mind we have an opportunity to win.
Henderson: What are you doing away from the track these days? You used to do all kinds of crazy stuff, like dune buggies and kite tubing, and now, your kids are a little older, you’re doing things like riding bikes and horses and hanging out with the kids.
Mears: All my time away from the track or away from the shop is time with my family. I love that. I enjoy it. I sold all my sand stuff. I haven’t had time for that, although my daughter Samantha loves it. She’s got a little 4-wheeler she loves to ride all the time.
Henderson: Future racer?
Mears: You never know. I’d like to get back out in the sand with them when they get a little older. Hayden’s already taking to it a little bit as well, riding the 4-wheelers with us; he really enjoys it. It’s fun to see them doing some of those things now.
Henderson: I heard Trisha got you to ride a horse. How was that?
Mears: That was fun. Different. I like to have more control over things than that.
Henderson: It’s only got one horsepower, but it’s got a mind of its own.
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