There’s an hour to kill before final Sprint Cup practice at Martinsville Speedway during a breezy Saturday spring afternoon. Teams are putting the finishing touches on their machines, hustling inside the garage before hitting the track one more time before Sunday’s STP 500. In the No. 13 Cup hauler, crew chief Bootie Barker is looking intently at his laptop computer while driver Casey Mears is relaxing in the lounge with his phone and tablet. The scene looks intense — until you realize that Barker is watching comedy videos and Mears is listening in.
That might not seem like much — at that moment, a couple dozen other teams are probably doing the same thing: loosening up before getting back to work. But for the Germain Racing organization, it’s symbolic of something more.
“We don’t do this if we’re running 25th,” Mears says.
It’s a sign that the team has high hopes this weekend. They’ve been fast, qualifying 18th and posting a top-10 time in the morning practice Saturday. Post-comedy video, Mears went out and ran a respectable 16th in final practice.
2016 has been a bit of an uphill battle for the No. 13 bunch. There have been bright spots, like Atlanta where Mears finished 14th and was as fast as the leaders late in the day. Two weeks ago, there was Fontana, where the team made a terrible car into a fast one by day’s end. But there have been misses, including Daytona where awful luck ended a streak of top-10 finishes in the sport’s biggest race; Mears wound up 32nd at a track where he typically contends. The team knows they could easily be sitting higher in points, crucial for their hopes to make the Chase and Mears hopes Martinsville is where they will turn a corner.
“Martinsville has tended to be one of our better tracks,” Mears said Saturday. “We’ve kind of found something that’s worked for us here years ago and we continue to evolve that. I think having some deep notes here and understanding where we need to be is a big help, but also one contributing factor to this weekend is that RCR came out with a new style of car that seems to be responding well.
“So not only are we applying what we’ve learned over the last few years that’s worked for us, we feel like the product that they’ve supplied is maybe a little better. So far, it’s been good. We have speed. The biggest thing going into the race is drive off. (That’s) going to be one of the biggest issues just because the temperatures are down and the tire’s not laying down a lot of rubber, so it’s wearing them out pretty quick.”
While Mears isn’t off to the start he had expected, there have been hints that things are looking up.
“At Fontana, we were really tight for the majority of the race, but we had decent relative speed,” Mears says. “Our short-run speed was bad. That’s what was difficult to handle: on the restarts, I just kept losing spots and couldn’t hang in there because it was too tight. But about three-quarters of the way through the race, we freed it up a little bit and that woke it up and then we just started flying.
“On one run, we drove from like 25th to 11th or something like that. But then we fell all the way back to 18th because I was having so much fun because it finally turned that I think I burned the right rear off of it. It was good to see us have that kind of speed again. We had the pit fire and had some issues, but to come out 17th was pretty decent considering where we started on that last green-white-checkered.”
There have been some wrinkles to iron out: a fuel miscalculation during the Daytona qualifying races cost Mears a shot a win and a top starting spot for the Daytona 500. There was that fire in the pits at Fontana which meant having to make up spots Mears had worked to gain all day. But the driver says that the pieces are all there for a strong season.
“We’re slowly putting it together,” he said. “We have cars with speed now. If we make the right decisions, the cars seem to respond and get faster. We’ve just to refine that and try to get a little bit ahead of it rather than reacting, and I think that’s going to come with the experience of having cars that have the speed and then making the right decisions.”
The conversation is punctuated by a few choice words from Barker’s video. Mears laughs; he’s obviously relaxed and enjoying a strong start to the weekend. He knows where his team could be with just a little more luck, and he’s confident about where they’re going. A good showing Sunday could be a catalyst for a team that once started and parked at this same track; now, they’re not only running but running with the top teams in the garage. It’s enough to keep everybody’s eyes on the prize.
“I think…we’ve had a handful of things that have happened at the beginning of this year where literally we could be sitting anywhere between 12th and 15th in points if we would have gotten the results we should have gotten out of the cars that had the speed,” Mears concluded. “I think, from here on out, we just have to hit the reset button a little bit.
“If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, minus the mistakes, we can have a really good year.”
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