Casey Mears has got to be the driver with the worst luck in finding and keeping a ride. It isn?t due to lack of talent on his part or anything within his control. It has been said that he got a NASCAR ride due to his name, and that may be true, but that does not cause sponsors to flock to you or inspire loyalty in any owner. Follow me on a walk through his NASCAR, particularly Cup, career.
Casey made his way over to the stock car ranks following an open wheel career in 2001. After running a few ARCA races in 2000-2001, he made his Busch series debut at Homestead and grabbed a full-time ride in the #66 for Wayne Jesel as a teammate to Hank Parker Jr. It was a struggle to get accustomed to the heavier stock cars, but there were some highlights like a 10th place finish at Nashville and 12th place finishes at Darlington and Homestead in his return trip.
While running a limited Busch schedule, Casey embarked on his Cup career in grand fashion with Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates in the #41 Target car under the leadership of Jimmy Elledge. Still transitioning to stock cars, Casey?s season was highlighted by a 15th place finish at Las Vegas and four more top 20s at Michigan, Martinsville and two at New Hampshire.
In his Sophomore season, he started off with a solid 14th place finish in the Daytona 500 and followed it up with 8 more top 10 finishes, the highest of which was 4th at Watkins Glen in August. Brian Vickers, one of his friends, joined him as a Cup driver, placing the two of them with powerhouse organizations. Casey finished 22nd in points and moved on to his 3rd year with the 41 car. He racked up 8 top tens, once more highlighted by a 4th place finish, this time at Texas on his way to finish a solid 12th in points. Midway through the season, it was announced he would leave the 41 car and move to a 4th car for Ganassi, but that deal fell through and he stepped into the ride Jamie McMurray had recently exited. So began the revolving door of teams and cars that has not stopped yet. He started the 2006 season with a great 2nd place finish at the Daytona 500 to Jimmie Johnson, another of his good friends. He followed that up with two top ten finishes the next two weeks and pulled off five more top tens as well as another 2nd place finish at Kansas on his way to 14th in points, one position ahead of Brian Vickers. He also earned his first Busch win at Chicago and was part of the winning team in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. However, he was starting to get a little discouraged at Ganassi and jumped at the chance to join Hendrick Motorsports in the 25 car that Brian Vickers had just left open.
Things looked great and like his future was only going to get brighter. Everything was set, stepping into a ride led by Lance McGrew that had won the fall race at Talladega the previous season. Shortly before Daytona, however, Lance announced he no longer wished to be a crew chief and stepped into a management role at Hendrick, leaving the team in the hands of Darien Grubb who had led Jimmie Johnson to a pair of wins at the beginning to 2006 in the sudden absence of Chad Knaus. The season started off slowly, only capturing 3 top 20s in the first 11 races, as he and Darien worked to get on the same page. That left them 35th in points heading into the longest race of the season, the Coca Cola 600. At the end of that night, due to brilliant strategy and running in the top 5/10 all night, they pulled off Casey?s first win. That finish catapulted them to a 13th and a pair of 4th place finishes the next three races. They only finished outside of the top 25 three times the rest of the season, pulling off an impressive 11 top 15 finishes and 6 top 10s that rocketed them up to 14th by the fall Charlotte race. They ended up 15th in points amid the swirl of Hendrick moving him over to the #5 Kelloggs car to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Over the off season, his team was picked apart to make Junior?s team better, leaving only the leftovers for Casey. Most importantly, he lost the crew chief he was just beginning to really gel with. That left him with the crew chief that was dragged along by Kyle Busch to the Chase the previous two seasons. The year started off terribly, finishing 37th in the Daytona 500 and 42nd after wrecking and turning upside down because of a wet track at the ?24 hours of California?. It got a little bit better as they finished in the top 20 five of the next nine weeks, but that was pockmarked by 42nd, 36th and 35th place finishes, leaving them mired in 27th in points.
Coming up to the one year anniversary of his first win, the new Hendrick chassis, #500, was bestowed on him. In a race where expectations ran very high, he ran around 30th, falling down several laps and finished 29th, four laps down and never in contention. Despite the performance that day, the team continued to use that car fairly often, leading to more finishes with mostly the same results. The season continued to be up and down, finishing 5th one week to 30-something the next. Overall, he only finished in the top ten 4 more times. However, in the Chase, he finished in the top 15 seven of the ten races (the others being 37th, 29th and 36th). But it was too little, too late as it was announced not even halfway through the season that Mark Martin was taking over the #5 car in 2009, not even giving Casey and Alan Gustafson a chance to get to know each other. So Casey was left to find another ride and picked up what looked to be a very solid ride at Richard Childress Racing in the #07 car that was left open by Clint Bowyer stepping into the new fourth car with General Mills as the sponsor. Many thought of this ride as someplace he could get some consistency, as well as maybe his last chance with a top team. And it looked to be a good season, with RCR coming off a year when all three cars made the Chase. The season started out decently, in his fifth car in as many years and third organization, with a 15th place finish in the Daytona 500. Six races (and only 1 top 20 finish) later, Gil Martin was swapped out with Todd Berrier to be his crew chief, again, not given enough time to get acclimated to each other. The addition of Todd Berrier proved to be a very good move as, after just a few races together, they pulled off a 9th place finish, followed by another 9th position and 14th place a few weeks after that.
Despite finishes that were as hit and miss as the previous year (although on average better), a solid base was starting to be built, accompanied by something Casey was not so used to hearing, the team owner encouraging him every week. Even though strange things seemed to happen race after race to keep him from getting the finish he deserved, his relationship with his crew chief flourished. For the first time in two years, he had a crew chief that knew how to set up cars the way he wanted. They earned a 6th place finish at Michigan and got consistent top 20 finishes once the Chase started. However, among mounting rumors of the sponsor not returning, Todd Berrier was placed with Jeff Burton starting at Talladega, leaving Casey with Doug Randolph who was particularly good at running the car out of fuel and giving them not enough time to get accustomed to each other. He finished 21st in points, 4th of all RCR cars (he had nearly been the second one at his high point in the season). Strangely enough, after Jeff Burton assumed the aid of Todd Berrier, experiencing a sudden spike in performance, he started treating Casey not so very nice. Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick worked with him (drafting, etc.) but Jeff Burton seemed only to want him out of the organization.
With the 2010 season on the horizon and no sponsor in sight, Richard Childress promised Casey a ride in the Daytona 500 in hopes of getting a sponsor and going from there. But the search for sponsorship continued to be fruitless, and RCR announced they would not be taking the 07 to Daytona, instead trying to sell the points it had earned. That left Casey searching for anything he could get. That something came in the form of the new Keyed-Up Motorsports and their #90 Chevrolet. The future seemed to look bright, but barely missing the field for the Daytona 500 and lack of sponsorship heralded four more DNQs in five races and essentially shut the team down. Casey jumped at a new opportunity in Phoenix: a chance to be Denny Hamlin?s backup driver following surgery on his knee. Even though he practiced the car, Casey never got a shot at racing it and spent two weeks on top of Denny?s pit box. With it becoming increasingly clear that his services would not be needed, Casey jumped into Tommy Baldwin?s #36 car. He ran for the team at Richmond but missed the race in Darlington and was getting things set for the rest of the season when he got a call from his friend, Brian Vickers, to drive his car at Dover after he was suddenly sidelined with blood clots. Casey returned with the team for the Sprint All-Star race in Charlotte. When it became clear Brian would be out for the rest of the season, Casey was named the replacement, with the possible exception of the road course races. The week before the Pocono race, Red Bull Racing announced they were swapping crew chiefs between their two cars, teaming Casey back up with the crew chief he started his Cup career with, Jimmy Elledge. Together they will try to rediscover the chemistry they had 5 years ago and get Red Bull going back in the right direction.
The future is still unclear though. When Brian Vickers comes back in 2011, Casey will turn the ride back over to the driver whose name is still above the door of the car. If he outperforms Scott Speed, perhaps he will be put in the 82 with Jimmy Elledge as things go back to the way it should be. For now, he needs to step up and be the leader behind the wheel of Red Bull?s # 1 team that Brian was for the organization.
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