Racing is never easy. It’s especially not easy when you qualify 34th for one of the season’s biggest races when you know — when everyone knows — you should be better than that. When you are better than that. Which is why Casey Mears is a little frustrated before the Coca-Cola 600. His No. 13 team is better than that; it has fought and clawed to get to that level.
But there’s optimism, too. A year ago or two years ago, maybe there wouldn’t be anything more for the race, but now, the team feels like it’s hit on something in Saturday’s practice sessions, something that moved the racecar up the speed charts. Mears feels good about it. Feels confident.
So let’s go racing, boys.
Mears and his Germain Racing team are working through the second season of a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, and that has brought the driver something even more than competitive engines and chassis: It’s brought stability, the ability to focus on fine-tuning instead of starting from scratch.
It’s a breath of fresh air for a driver who knows all too well what it’s like not to have that luxury.
In a quiet Charlotte garage after Saturday’s practice sessions were over and the Xfinity Series race was the center of attention on the track, Mears discussed improving on what he and his team had a year ago.
“I think that this offseason was really healthy for us, just not changing the manufacturer or a big change with NASCAR,” he says. “It was a pretty mellow offseason. Although our guys worked a lot, they were able to work on things that make the car go faster and not on just getting the cars together, so that was a huge help for us. Also, based on things that we learned in the offseason and toward the tail end of last year, we’ve been able to continually work in those areas and make the cars better and better.”
Being able to carry people and information over from one season to the next is something some drivers take for granted, but it’s something that has largely been missing for Mears for so much of his Cup career. Sure, he drove for some of the sport’s top organizations in Ganassi, Hendrick and Childress. But within those top rides, he bounced from team to team, crew chief to crew chief. He would run well enough and gain momentum, and when it was all coming together, there was a new team to work with, a new crew chief to figure out how he needed things. It wasn’t really about Casey Mears. And things were about to hit bottom.
Loss of a key sponsor left Mears without a ride going into the 2010 season and left the driver wondering which way was up. He drove a few races for an upstart organization that went nowhere, filled in at a few others. Unsure of where the road would lead, Mears got the call from Germain Racing. The team was still new, and started and parked in too many races, leaving Mears and the team often wondering what they were working so hard for. The team changed from Toyotas to Fords and got a little faster, found a little more money. Mears was spared feeling sick to his stomach every time he had to pull in early, but the team was still searching for speed, for handling. The manufacturer changes made more work for Germain, simply building new cars and figuring out how to set them up instead of how to make them go faster.
The RCR alliance brought one more manufacturer change for the 2014 season. The No. 78 team had made the switch a year earlier and made the Chase, so expectations were high, hopes even higher. “We got all the RCR stuff last year, and we all knew that, so I think there was a lot of frustration when we didn’t run better than we were running,” Mears says now.
In a way, that was new. Mears and his team were used to running in the mid-20s; a top 25 was a solid day, if not a spectacular one. A top-20 run was a small victory, while a top 15 was a big one. It was all a part of a small team’s progression, and the alliance with RCR offered such a boost. It was hard not to see instant results.
A year later, though, the team is making gains. If last year was about the big picture of the new Chevrolets and making them go fast, this season is about fine-tuning them to be even faster. Mears started the year with a top 10 at Daytona and hovered in the top 15 in points for seven weeks. Now, he’s 21st in points, and his average finish has improved by more than eight spots over when he started with the team.
But he’s not satisfied. He knows the team is better than that. Two years ago, they might have been satisfied, but not any more. Mears is a top-15 driver; he’s proven that. And while a year or two ago, the top 20s and solid points position would have been above and beyond for the No. 13 team, now it’s not enough.
“(We’re) not at all (where we should be),” Mears says, his tone confident, passionate. “I feel like we should be sitting inside the top 15 pretty solid. We’ve had some things just happen this year. We were at Phoenix and had the right rear spring come out of the bucket and we didn’t know it and we had a very fast racecar and got a pretty mediocre finish there. At Kansas we had a really fast racecar but had an off set of tires that put us a lap down. We put a better set of tires back on it and it was all good again. There’s just kind of a list of things. At Richmond, I had a really fast car and got run into right out of the gate. There’s probably about five races I could give you with just things that have happened. Everybody always has things happen throughout the year, but we’ve just had things happen more often than we typically would.
“I think that based on our performance and how fast we’ve been, we should definitely be inside the top 15 in points, so we’re a little frustrated with that, but happy with the speed we have.”
That speed is apparent almost from the drop of the green flag in the Coca-Cola 600. Mears gains several spots quickly, his lap times are comparable with the race leaders. He sounds confident on the radio, and the team is going in the right direction, looking for a strong finish.
But those things that happen? They keep right on happening. Around 40 laps in, before the race has really even begun, Mears reports smelling smoke, and the car loses power. He’s able to get it back, but the cool box that sends chilled air to his helmet isn’t working.
It’s going to be a long night.
Mears knows there’s still work to be done.
“It’s still out there lingering, right?” he asks, as though the reason might take physical form, jump up and bite him. “If we knew what it was, we’d just go out and do it now. There’s no doubt that we’ve paid a lot more attention to our (cars’) bodies these days. Understanding exactly what RCR is doing as well, that’s been a gain for us. We’ve just really gone through the cars and made sure that we don’t have any extra weight that we don’t need and I think that’s been a help, just the attention to detail. In the past, when your stuff’s off, you unload and you’re so far off that you feel like you need to throw the kitchen sink at it. We’ve gotten a lot better about being more meticulous and methodical about how we approach our practices and what we get out of our practices. We make sure that instead of making a lot of changes with no answers, we’re making less changes with solid answers. That all stems with just being better to begin with.”
Mears is picking off cars as the laps tick by. Another wrench is thrown into the works when his spotter radios that he’s not feeling well. Justin Allgaier‘s spotter takes over; by now, Allgaier has hit the wall and taken his No. 51 to the garage.
The team adjusts. Mears peeks into the top 20, his lap times again comparable with the race leaders’. He’s hot and uncomfortable, asking for ice and cold water on his pit stops, but all seems well with the car, though it’s not handling quite the way he wants it to, wanting to step out on him coming off the corners.
2015 is a contract year for Mears. In early May, the driver said that he hoped to return, but there had not been much conversation between him and the team yet, and there were rumors that the ride would go to RCR development driver Ty Dillon.
Mears says that he and the team have talked since, and he feels positive about the future.
“We definitely have talked about it,” he recalls. “Things sound really good. Nothing’s nailed down yet, but we’re definitely talking about moving forward and nothing really changing, hopefully. I’ve talked to Bob [Germain] and he’s excited about our future. Everybody seems to be on the same page, so we just have to figure it out.”
The team has come so far together. It’s climbed from a start-and-park operation that some in the sport ridiculed to a contender that almost everyone respects. Mears and his teammates have done it the hard way, and they’ve done it together. They want to build a future together.
The race marches on. The car is fast. It’s also loose, but loose is fast, and Mears is working his way into the top 20. He runs the high line, and the car slips out from under him, just a fraction. He tags the wall. There’s no caution and he doesn’t lose much ground, but these cars are so sensitive, so easy to upset. And right now, this one is a little difficult. And hot. The team gives Mears ice and water when they can, and he doesn’t complain, just tries to communicate the car, to make it even faster.
Casey Mears is a bit of an accidental NASCAR driver; in fact, he might not be here at all if not for a well-timed opportunity. His family made its name racing in open-wheel cars and racing off-road vehicles, not in stock cars. The decision was going to be between the two premier open-wheel series, between IRL and CART. Not stock cars. Not NASCAR.
“Honestly, it was purely chance that I ended up going in this direction,” Mears says. “Actually, I was battling at the time, wondering if I was going to go to IRL or CART. I had a couple of opportunities there and a random opportunity came out of the blue to come over here and check it out. I thought I’d give it a shot and once I got over here and realized how much racing was going on. My dad was telling me, even before I got that opportunity, because he came back here before I did and he couldn’t believe it. We hadn’t really spent time out here in North Carolina; we were always in California, and he’s like, ‘man, the shops out here, the race teams, the people, there’s so much going on, you need to get back here and check it out.’ And it wasn’t but a couple of months later that I actually got an opportunity to do that and I’ve been here ever since.”
He’s happy here, though there have been times when there were more doubts than answers, more pain and frustration than clarity. Mears is always affable, with an easy smile, but there have been times when he hasn’t wanted to smile, when he’s questioned his future, when some have questioned him, questioned his talent. He’s got car control, they say, but his numbers don’t exactly set the world on fire.
The laps are winding down. The No. 13 is holding its own, and Mears is eying a top-20 finish — not what the team had hoped for, perhaps, but a whole lot better than it was the last time the Cup Series was here, last fall, when he finished 31st. A whole lot better than the team was on Thursday, for that matter. As has become its trademark, the Germain team keeps digging.
Mears tags the wall again. Those things that he talked about earlier? They’ve kept on happening on this night. They’re all part of the game, something that most fans will never know about. They’re not excuses, just things that happen. Some day they won’t happen, and Mears and his team know that. Know that when they don’t, the finishes will happen.
Mears has always been quick to smile, and that hasn’t changed. What has changed is that the smile when he talks about his team, where they’ve come from and where they’re going is no longer tentative. It reaches his eyes. He’s happy here.
“I’m really happy, but I’m not satisfied with the results,” Mears says, his voice quietly intense, passionate about his team and his craft. “I think that just comes from being competitive and wanting to do well. I’m proud to be a part of this team. I’m proud that I feel like I’ve been a big part of its growth. It’s pretty rewarding to see us having that speed and doing better now.”
The checkered flag flies on a long, hot night. Mears climbs from the car, his day done at last. He finished 23rd, which is 11 spots better than he started, so that’s something. The No. 13 is rolled into its spot on the hauler to go home to Mooresville. The next day, the team will roll it back off, figure out how to make it go faster. Next week, and the week after that and the one after that, it’ll keep looking. Casey Mears will drive it for all it’s worth.
The No. 13 bunch knows they can improve. They know they can contend. They know they can win.
That’s why they’re here.