Mears turns corner

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The son of off-road racer posted his best NASCAR showing last weekend.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Casey Mears has defied the odds by lasting this long at Chip Ganassi Racing, where the car owner has an intolerance for mediocrity.

Despite limited results, Mears was kept on for a fourth season and opened it with the best run of his career -- a second-place finish in the Daytona 500.

"I'm with a good team, we're fast, and I think a lot of things are going in the right direction," Mears said.

It's a long time coming for Mears, the son of off-road racer Roger Mears and nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears. He followed his family into open-wheel racing, then smartly switched to stock cars when it became clear NASCAR was the strongest racing series in the United States.

He made his NASCAR debut in a 2001 Busch Series race, then ran the full schedule the next season. Ganassi plucked him for a Nextel Cup ride, and no one was sure if it was the right move for Mears.

It gave him seat time in a coveted Cup car, but Mears was Ganassi's third different driver in three years, and the car owner had shown zero patience for development. If Mears didn't impress -- and quickly -- he was in danger of blowing his first big opportunity.

Somehow, Mears convinced Ganassi that he needed at least two seasons to get a fair shake.

"My first year was horrendous, but we all knew it was going to be, coming from where I came from and the background and experience I had," Mears said. "We went off into the second year, and I talked to Chip even before it started and told him I had to have that second year because we knew the first year was going to be a struggle."

Mears showed slight improvement in his second season, jumping from 35th in the points standings as a rookie to 22nd the next year. But the results didn't transfer into last season. Although he had a few bright spots, he failed to race his way into Victory Lane and was again 22nd in the standings.

No one, not even Mears, was sure he would be back in 2005. When Ganassi finally committed to him, it was almost a demotion for Mears: He was going to be moved out of the established No. 41 Dodge, replaced by rookie Reed Sorenson, and given a startup team to pilot.

Through it all, Mears never got discouraged.

"I would give him advice, but Casey always has such a great outlook on things," said good friend and Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson. "I've never really seen him too down and out. He's always believed in himself. He knows what his abilities are.

"He knew he was new to these cars and needed to learn a lot, but he's always had a great outlook on things. Even in the toughest times where it would be easy to be down and out, he's always been very positive."

It paid off late last year when teammate Jamie McMurray finagled his release from Ganassi, freeing up a seat in the team's strongest car. Mears was handed the keys to the No. 42 Dodge and instantly became the senior member of the three-driver team.

The 27-year-old Mears now outranks Sorenson and fellow rookie David Stremme in Cup experience, and has been teamed with veteran crew chief Donnie Wingo.

Mears proved he can handle his new role Sunday with his smart run in the Daytona 500. He hung around at the back of the field for most of the race, avoiding the trouble that befell the drivers too impatient to wait to make their moves.

When Mears finally charged to the front he was able to stay there, and hung on for second place -- the highest finish of his career -- and an impressive $1,095,770 payday.

"I think we've proved we can run up front and I can do it as a race-car driver," he said. "I did it before I got to stock cars. I ran up front and won races in every series I was running, so I always had that confidence in the back of my mind that I could do it."

Mears now heads to his native California ranked second in the standings. Ganassi and co-owner Felix Sabates have been raving about his potential, with each one confident this will be the season Mears cements himself as a contender.

"I always knew Casey had the ability, I always had faith in him," Sabates said. "I would listen to him on the radio and he never panicked, he always just tried to work his way through every situation. This is a big year for him and I believe he's going to put himself in the Chase for the Championship."

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