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Casey Mears, after tours with Ganassi and Hendrick, is now with Richard Childress, for Year 7 on the NASCAR tour


Casey Mears -- a great team player, now playing with Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer...under crew chief Gil Martin's eyes (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)


By Mike Mulhern

   So just how good is Casey Mears at the wheel?
   After two so-so years at Rick Hendrick's – with that gas-mileage victory in the 2007 600 at Charlotte the high-spot – and four so-so years with Chip Ganassi – highlighted by that near-win in the 2006 Daytona 500 (if only Ryan Newman had made a different move at the end….) – now Mears is at Richard Childress', as new teammate with Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.
   Mears, who turns 31 next month, has classic racing genes, with Roger Mears his father and Rick Mears his uncle. And he's a great guy to hang with.
   Key wisdom from his family? "My dad and my uncle probably instilled the most advice in me from Day One: never burn a bridge.
   "It's a small world. 
    "And now that I've looked at the way my career has gone, through the teams, like I have recently, I'm glad to say I haven't really burned a bridge anywhere." 
   But on the track, well, Mears has been a Mr. Cool money-driver, who doesn't tear up stuff….but who doesn't usually thrill a crowd with trick-and-fancy moves, like Carl Edwards' off-the-wall bid at Kansas last fall.
   Then again, with all the egos in Childress' shop, Mears' low-keyed approach may play well at the moment. He is the consummate team player.
   And to be honest, following Kyle Busch at Hendrick's, well, that dude is a hard act to match. Still, whether Alan Gustafson, the brilliant crew chief for Busch in 2006 and 2007, and Mears' crew chief in 2008, will have any major change in on-track dynamics with new driver Mark Martin remains to be seen.
   So Casey Mears….
   Was Hendrick as wrong about Mears as he was about Busch?
   Hendrick's decision to dump Busch – now quite likely the best driver in NASCAR – doesn't look like one of his great calls. If last season was, partly, Busch-versus-Dale Earnhardt Jr., the man who Hendrick hired to replace him, well, Busch won that duel hands down. A man doesn't win 21 national NASCAR events on adrenalin alone.
   But sometimes it's hard to read Hendrick's mind. And picking Martin to replace Mears could be a good call. Curious, yes, and interesting too. But how will it pay off?
   Of course if NASCAR holds to its test ban, Martin's experience may be a decided plus. And certainly it's unlikely anyone will gain any major advantage over the Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush teams without major testing. Maybe NASCAR execs simply want to lock in their already sizeable advantage.
   The only two powers that showed last year they could battle Hendrick and Roush were Childress and Joe Gibbs. The Big Four dominated everything, and they should again.
   However the Childress and Gibbs teams faded down the stretch, while Hendrick and Roush kicked it up into another gear.
   So this is the world Mears is stepping into.
   And without much testing Mears still isn't sure just what he's got.
   "It's been a long off-season, because we didn't get in the car as often as you would like, with the testing rules," Mears says.
   "We've done a little bit here and there, got some testing done in November when we first kind of decided exactly what we were going to do (with crews).
   "From our end, with a lot of things being new, the sooner the better…and the sooner we can figure out exactly where we stand, as far as communication between Gil and me, and working with all the new guys on the team."
   The team Mears now works with was the surprise of the 2007 championship playoffs, the only bunch that could hang with streaking Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Of course in 2008 internal bickering (to hear the scuttlebutt and to read the faces) turned that team south, and Bowyer was shuffled out (amid reports he hasn't been as good a team player as teammates would like).
   What's Mears' quick analysis of what happened to the Childress bunch last fall – just when they appeared in command in the title chase, right after Jeff Burton's Charlotte win, something happened: "My outside look wasn't that they fell off, it was the other guys got a little better right at the end."
   This season Mears should be a calming influence.
  But one thing about Gil Martin – 'calm' isn't one of his favorite words. He's almost old-school – you could envision him reaching for a jackhandle or fire extinguisher, if things got hot enough on pit road or in the garage.
   So, one question here – can Martin light a fire under Mears?
   First off, Mears' coolness and smarts should hold him well in the Daytona 500. That's a race where smarts tend to pay off.
   But California and Vegas and Atlanta, that's where Martin and Mears will really have to click…particularly with NASCAR's testing ban.
   Mears is part of Childress' long-awaited fourth-team expansion move. That move too will be closely watched. It's hard to keep everyone happy on a three-car team, much less four. And expansions, as Childress himself knows all too well, are typically ragged transitions.
   All three Childress teams made the playoffs last season. This season it's hard to imagine all four making the cut.
   On the plus side, Mears seems almost immune to pressure. There's a lot of Rick Mears in here, it seems.



Last season teammates, this season rivals: Casey Mears (R) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

"Honestly, I haven't thought a whole lot about where they were last year and what they've done," Mears says of the Childress operation.
   "Just knowing I'm going in with a really good organization….
    "They had a great last year, everybody making the chase.
    "The first indications of everything that I've gotten, working the little bit I have with Gil and the guys, spending time around the shop, it's just a good fit, it really is. 
    "It's a very good fit. 
    "I thought I was comfortable last year….and now I'm over here at RCR, and working with Gil and the guys I'm realizing I wasn't as comfortable as I should have been last year. 
    "These guys have really made me feel at home.
    "And the speed we've shown when we have tested -- we've been quick. 
     "So I'm really optimistic about this year. The chances of us having a lot of success are very high.
    "Man, I really like these guys. They're a lot of fun."
   The change from Hendrick's to Childress' – "I have a lot of good friends at Hendrick, and the guys on the team all treated me well," Mears said. "I had a really, really good time. 
    "Maybe I'm jumping to conclusions, because everything here is new, and so far we're on the honeymoon side of things….but I've been happy and pleased so far with the way we've all clicked. 
   "Gil and I clicked right away. 
    "The test we had in November -- every single change we made on the car went in the right direction. To me that was a good indication we're communicating: He's understanding what I'm saying, and he's translating it to the car.
   "That side was important. 
    "And right out of the gate we just really hit it off with a lot of the guys. It's a good, comfortable atmosphere.
    "For some reason I feel very comfortable. 
    "I felt comfortable last year, but this year, for some reason, I feel more comfortable…and I'm not sure why that is."
    NASCAR's testing ban is like the 800-pound gorilla that no one wants to look at. Will this be a repeat of the 2007 testing limits, where the Hendrick teams took advantage of things, and their rivals sat on their thumbs? Who is really doing what at all these secret tests?
    Jack Roush says he'd be willing to skip all testing anywhere, if his rivals would agree.
    So just where are the limits?
   What's right and what's wrong?
   "You know what's crazy is I haven't really dug into exactly what it is you're supposed to do and what exactly you're not supposed to do," Mears concedes, about testing.
    "My vague understanding is that we're not supposed to test at any NASCAR-sanctioned tracks. Obviously the GM Proving Grounds (near Phoenix) is not a NASCAR-sanctioned track, so we went out there and tried to get all the information we possibly can.
    "It's a tough area to try to find out exactly how it's supposed to be done, as far as saying 'No testing…but some testing.'
   "And how do you deal with new rookies coming in?  (Like Joey Logano.) You don't give them any track time? That's not fair. 
    "There is, I think, possibly some better ways of doing it.
   "At the same time I think it was a good step in the right direction too (limiting testing).
    "For us, we're just doing what we need to do, within the rules, to try to get all the information we possibly can. And we're going to continue to do that until something else is different."
    With no pre-season testing at Daytona, how will that impact the Daytona 500?
   Probably mostly in ticket sales, without much January publicity. That's one reason NASCAR's testing ban has been criticized in some quarters as pennywise/pound-foolish.
   But then drivers loved skipping Daytona testing, which for them is quite boring.
   Still, for new drivers and crews, like this one, just hanging together is sometimes more important than what is actually learned out on the track.
   "Daytona testing is probably the least valuable of the tests we go to," Mears says. "These guys got these cars pretty sorted out now when it comes to superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega). And NASCAR has got you in such a small box; there isn't really anything a whole lot you can do to improve your race car. 
   "A lot of times we came here to Daytona and made a million changes and picked up only probably half a tenth. 
    "It can be a little bit frustrating."
   And that doesn't take into account the arcane practice time rules NASCAR inflicted on these guys the past few years: "Usually here at Daytona there were so many cars, you'd make a change, go out onto pit road, and just sit there for 30 or 40 minutes before you got to make your run….and then somebody might pull out in front of you and ruin that run," Mears said.
   That's because NASCAR officials were trying to give drivers and crews 'clean air' for those runs….because Daytona 500 pole runs are the traditional better-lap-of-two, solo speed runs – arcane isn't a strong enough word for that deal, as the typically empty grandstands for pole qualifying here have shown over the year.
   Why NASCAR hasn't decided to simply set the Daytona 500 field – including the front row -- on the results from Thursday's twin-150s is hard to understand, particularly from a promoter's point of field. And the people who own NASCAR are the same people who own Daytona International Speedway.
    Mears' biggest job right now is helping Childress make this new four-car operation click.
    And making a four-car team work isn't easy. Just ask Hendrick himself.
    Mears' own take on 2008, when his three Hendrick teammates made the playoffs but he didn't?
   "You could dig into a lot of reasons why we weren't as competitive last year. 
   "But, really, for me, that's done with. That's somebody else's topic to talk about. And you can ask Mark how he feels about going into this year. I think they have a lot of potential to do well.
   "As far as RCR -- Richard was one of the key reasons I definitely wanted to sign.  Obviously they've got a great organization, a great team. 
    "Now meeting Gil and all the guys, I'm so happy with having the opportunity. 
     "But Richard is one of those guys who, when I first started in the Cup side of things (in 2003)….well, I had a lot to learn the first couple years. But my second and third years were when I really started coming on and running really well, even if I was only running for seventh or sixth, Richard is one of those guys who really watches the race. 
    "He really watches his guys, but he also watches the whole race -- I don't know how many times I'd be walking down pit road or through the garage and he'd stop me and say 'Man, that race you had with that guy the other day was a hell of a race.'
    "He's watching what you do and how you reacted. 
     "It was neat to know he was keeping tabs on me. I always thought that was special about Richard -- that he actually paid attention to what was going on out there a lot more than most other car owners do. 
    "So this is a lot of fun. 
    "I was walking through the shop, and he's there walking around. It's cool to see that. It definitely makes you feel like 'Hey, he's really a part of this deal.'"

How Good Is Mears? Not Very

Casey Mears has never shown enough muscle or killer instinct to be taken all that seriously as a racer. The cars change but he doesn't. RCR also isn't as strong as the other of the Big Four teams, so this doesn't look like a combo that will work.

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