In NASCAR, there are no guarantees, and as such it’s possible for a team to check all the boxes and still struggle to perform. That was the fate of Casey Mears and Germain Racing in 2016 after coming off the team’s best-ever season at NASCAR’s top level in 2015.
A fueling issue in the Daytona 500 led to a 32nd-place finish at one of Mears’ best tracks, but he followed it up with a stellar 14th-place run at Atlanta, only to struggle the next two weeks before scoring another top-20 finish at Fontana. And that’s how the season went for Mears and his No. 13 team.
The team was fast in practice many times only to not find the same speed in qualifying or race trim, and weekend optimism quickly soured on race days. Yet it was hard to pinpoint exactly why. The team has had a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing for the last few seasons, and they get decent cars and durable engines. Mears is a solid enough driver—he’ll never set the world on fire, but he will get the finish his car is capable of and he’ll bring it home in one piece—his three DNF’s in 2016 tied for third among all drivers, and all three came from crashes not of his doing. He’s also popular with fans. The team was strong on pit road; communication between Mears and crew chief Bootie Barker was strong—on paper, they looked easily capable of a top-25 season with some runs inside the top 20 throughout the year.
What was lacking at times was the ability to turn what Mears was relaying to the team into changes that worked on track—the team would improve one issue only to have another pop up.
Mears and the team entered the season with so much optimism—sponsor GEICO signed up for three more seasons, through 2018, bringing Mears along for the ride. And there were those good runs early that pointed to better days.“We haven’t had the ideal start to the season. 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 said early in the season. “I think from here on out, we just have to hit the reset button a little bit and keep doing what we’ve been doing minus the mistakes, we can have a really good year.”
But a spring slump changed everything.
Mears went to Martinsville, a track he enjoys and one he’s done well at, and had a great opening to the weekend, only to have the race turn into a disappointment, finishing 31st. From then until Daytona in July, he didn’t crack the top 20, his best effort coming at Kansas in the form of a 21st-place finish.
Daytona provided a bright spot with a 12th-place run, and another came at Watkins Glen a few weeks later and kicked of a strong of consistent top-25 finishes.
The final 10-race stretch was a tough one for the No. 13 team, with three crashes in a span of five weeks. Mears ended the season with a pair of top-20 runs, but by then the die was cast. Richard Childress needed a seat for his grandson, Ty Dillon, and was willing to pay handsomely for it in the form of additional support and better equipment and information.
It’s a good deal for Germain Racing; not so much for Mears, the only driver the team has known since Max Papis ran a few races in 2010. The biggest plow for the driver was when GEICO, which has backed him for the last six years, opted to stay with the team and Dillon, which puts Mears’ future in the top series in question.
For the team, 2017 looks to be on course for a similar run to last year’s. Dillon ran a limited Cup schedule with Circle Sport Leavine Family Racing and posted an average finish of 24th, one spot above Mears’ average. With RCR equipment, Dillon should be able to maintain a mid-20s finish. He’s got a more aggressive driving style than Mears, which could be a mixed blessing for the team depending on how much support comes from RCR.
Mears has been rumored to the No. 33 Circle Sport team for 2017, a significant step backward in terms of equipment, but a full-time team with a charter nonetheless. The driver tweeted last week that he’s weighing his options for the new season.
Thank you for all the support out there 👊🏻
Working on what's next. Having fun exploring all options and directions. #mearsgang
— Casey Mears (@CJMearsGang) December 6, 2016