It isn’t easy being Casey Mears.
The 30-year-old heir to the Mears family racing legacy drives the No. 5 Kellogg’s/Carquest Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports where his teammates — Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — are all considered NASCAR Sprint Cup championship contenders.
At Hendrick, one would think that he is almost the forgotten man, except that isn’t the case.
Mears, in fact, is under the microscope as much as anybody in the NASCAR garage because of his name and his team.
While Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt all battle to be in, or stay in, the Top 12 Chase for the Championship group, Mears finds himself far back in the pack.
But last year Mears did grab the brass ring at NASCAR’s version of a homecoming weekend when he won the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
He’s back at LMS this year to prove it wasn’t a fluke and he spoke to the media via a teleconference call after testing at the 1.5-mile oval located in Concord, N.C., on the outskirts of Charlotte.
“As far as the All-Star race and the 600, I just always look forward to that, coming back, obviously being here in Charlotte, being able to stay at home, and everybody kind of considers this their backyard, so it’s a big pride thing to win the All-Star race, and hopefully we can come back and hold our title for the 600,” he said.
In this year’s version of the Coca-Cola 600, however, Cup drivers will be in the Car of Today, which changes strategy for winning NASCAR’s longest race, but at the end of the day Mears said it’s all still about speed..
“The car is still good aero tight. The speeds are pretty similar,” he said. “We’re getting around the tracks pretty well. I just think in a pack (the COT) is a little bit more difficult to drive. It seems like when someone is on the outside of you, they tend to get a lot looser. The aero tight is a good bit worse as far as trying to close in on somebody.
“We’ve been slowly chipping away at that. We’ve been kind of getting the cars better, which has made all of that better. But at the end of the day, they’ve been a little bit more difficult to drive, and I think that’s some reason why the tracks are opening up into more grooves, because the guys are just trying to get away from each other to try to figure out a way to get around. It presents a lot of new challenges, and we’ve been fighting that this year on the mile-and-a-halfs.”
Mears said that while being on a so-called “super team” certainly brings pressure to win, he feels it’s no more or less than it would be on any Cup squad.
“As far as the pressure, I mean, I feel pressure to win every weekend. That’s our job and that’s what we focus on,” he said. “You know, I won’t feel any differently going into the 600. It feels good to come back to a race that we won last year and getting the recognition for that.
“But our job is to do that again. I don’t really feel any additional pressure, but it definitely makes you want to win it maybe a little bit more.”
What does add pressure for Mears is the constant buzz about his position at Hendrick. With what happened in 2007 when Rick Hendrick lured Earnhardt to the team and fired Kyle Busch to make room, the rumour this season is that Tony Stewart could be next on the Hendrick hit list and that Mears would be the fall guy.
“It’s kind of an unfortunate thing, but it seems like I’m in this situation almost every year a little bit, just because I’m constantly changing teams and I’m constantly spending the first half of the season just trying to grow and learn with that new team,” he said. “I think the biggest thing that obviously we need to see happen with the No. 5 team is that it stays consistent, obviously get this full year under our belt.
“(Crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and I were just talking the other day how we feel like we’re just now kind of starting to feel like we’re getting on the same page, and I think with the things that we’ve been learning lately and the way that we’ve been moving up in points, we’ve just got to continue to do that, focus on having a good year, hopefully win some races before the year is out and have something good and strong to build on for next season.”
And Mears is insistent that just because he comes from one of the most famous families in American racing, it doesn’t mean he was or is destined to carry on the family business.
“You know, my family actually distracted me from racing,” he said. “Obviously my uncle (Rick Mears) did well; he got with a great ride with Roger Penske and they always had great sponsors and ran really well and has a great history.
“My dad has had a lot of success, too, but I think living it first hand and seeing how difficult and how fickle the sport can be, they tried to get me to do something different because they know how difficult it is; but fortunately it went this direction.”