NASCAR: Mears looks for consistency
DOVER, Del. ó Junior, Jimmie and Jeff.
The three Js of Hendrick Motorsports boast the titles, fan support, endorsements and marquee wins most other drivers would envy. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are respected in the garage, largely beloved off the track, and arguably turned Hendrick into NASCAR’s most decorated and dominant team.
Then there’s Casey Mears.
Winner of one career Sprint Cup race.
Not even close to the top-12 in points or making a run at the Chase.
Often viewed as the weakest link in the Hendrick powerhouse.
While Johnson (twice) and Gordon (four times) are both Cup champions, and Earnhardt is the most popular driver in NASCAR, Mears has failed to come close to matching the talented trio in popularity or performance. He’s jumped teams, been shuffled around cars and assigned new crew chiefs, but the changes haven’t helped Mears find any kind of regular success in a six-year Cup career.
“All those guys have had a lot of success over the years and deserve all the recognition,” Mears said. “For myself and the team to get on that same recognition level, you have to go out and win races. That’s the way the sport works. We’ve got to step up, start making things happen and we’ll get the same recognition.”
A little more than a year ago, Mears appeared on the brink of turning his career around. He raced to victory at the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, on the same day once synonymous with Mears greatness. His uncle Rick Mears is the four-time Indianapolis 500 champion, and the relatives shared an emotional conversation after Casey Mears finally burst through into Victory Lane.
The milestone victory, though, did little to spark Mears’ season. He finished 15th in the points and was the only Hendrick driver who failed to make the Chase for the championship.
Mears also had to deal with the rumors that he might be on his way out at Hendrick to make room for Junior. Instead, it was Kyle Busch who got the boot. Busch has been sensational and the top Cup driver in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing, showing that it is possible to make a smooth transition to a new team.
Mears has had to deal with at least a new crew chief, team (he previously ran for Chip Ganassi Racing) or car almost every season. He’s in the No. 5 this year ó after driving the No. 25 last season ó and paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson.
“He’s got a ton of talent. So does this whole team and when we get it right we’re fast,” Mears said. “For some reason, it’s been taking a little bit longer to mesh like we thought.”
Gustafson is the fourth crew chief Mears has had in four seasons. He had two different crew chiefs at Ganassi, then was moved away from the No. 25 team and Darian Grubb when Hendrick shuffled things for Earnhardt.
“It’s not easy getting to know a new person every single year and trying to adapt to that,” Mears said. “Don’t get me wrong, I think we should be doing better than where we are right now ó that’s not our excuse. But it’s not an easy transition to make every single time.”
Mears started last week 39th at Dover International Speedway and finished 17th, moving him up to 25th in the standings. But he is still a whopping 331 points behind Kasey Kahne for the 12th and final spot in the Chase.
“I don’t feel like we’re that far off,” Mears said. “I think it looks worse than it is. There’s no reason why we can’t get a good car.”
Again, Mears has fallen way behind the other three drivers at Hendrick. Earnhardt is third, Gordon sixth and Johnson seventh in the points. Oh, and the Hendrick driver who got away after last season ó Busch ó leads the points race and has a Cup-best four victories this season.
“It’s been tough on him and the whole team,” said Johnson, the two-time defending champ and Mears’ closest friend in the series. “I really hope for them they’ve hit bottom and are working their way up. I hope a good time’s right around the corner.”
There is a bright side to this season. Mears is set to become a first-time father, though he declined to discuss a due date.
Mears can only hope he’ll deliver another victory first.
“If we can get on a serious roll and get us in the Chase that would be great,” Mears said. “Right now, I’m just worried about getting more consistent, making us where when we go to each race we’re considered to be in the top 10. Once you get in the top 10 consistently, anything can happen.”