Tim Tuttle
Wednesday October 7th, 2009

For Casey Mears it's a risk worth taking.

The chance to stay with a solid organization that has endured an off year is worth the gamble to see if Richard Childress can sign a sponsor to replace the departing Jack Daniels. But it's also dangerous. Should Childress fail to land the funding, Mears could be the last veteran driver standing without a seat for 2010.

Mears can't afford to be patient with RCR for too long. Sprint Cup veterans Jamie McMurray, David Stremme and Reed Sorenson are actively cruising the garage hunting for jobs, and Bobby Labonte and David Gilliland are probably looking too. Including Mears, that's six drivers in the marketplace, and three cars -- Earnhardt Ganassi's No. 1, Hall of Fame's No. 96 and TRG's No. 71 -- available.

Heading into Sunday's 30th race of the season at the Auto Club Speedway in southern California, Mears is the top-pointed driver among this group of six, sitting in 19th. It can be argued that Mears has driven better this season than in any of his seven in Cup. The fairest way to evaluate Mears is to compare him to his teammates. Clint Bowyer has clearly been RCR's best this season, 16th in points with four top-fives and 12 top-10s. Jeff Burton is 18th, 69 points in front of Mears. Kevin Harvick is 21st, 95 behind Mears.

Bowyer, Burton and Harvick have been regulars in the Chase the past several seasons and they didn't come close to making it this year. RCR has work to do on its Chevrolets to return to the upper echelon, a notion that further emphasizes how impressive Mears' improvement has been in a tough situation. He has only three top-10s, but his 15th last week at Dover was his 10th top-15. Mears also doesn't have a DNF.

At age 31, Mears has his best years in front of him, especially considering he didn't start driving stock cars until 2002 in the Nationwide Series. He grew up in Indy car-style racing, driving in the single-seater development series before reaching CART and the Indy Racing League.

Mears was a surprise pick by Chip Ganassi to move into Cup in '03, and, following a slow start, made steady progress. He was 14th in the points in the final season with Ganassi in '06. Rick Hendrick then signed him for '07 and '08.

The opportunity at Hendrick looked like his big break. Mears won the Coca-Cola 600 in '07 and had career-highs in top-fives (five) and top-10s (10), but 15th in the points didn't compare to the Chase seasons of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch. Mears slipped to 20th last season, and Hendrick replaced him with Mark Martin.

Martin's great season in the No. 5 with Alan Gustafson as crew chief has reflected poorly on Mears, who had the same team. But racing teams aren't that straightforward or simple to compare from one season to the next. Martin has clicked beyond all expectations with the No. 5. At age 50, he's having his finest season since 1998. And Hendrick's Dale Earnhardt Jr. has performed well beneath expectations, 22nd in points.

The fact Childress wants to keep Mears is an endorsement of his Chase-capable talent in the right equipment and with the right chemistry.

With Juan Pablo Montoya's Chase-contending season, Earnhardt Ganassi's No. 1 is a very attractive opportunity. Mears and Ganassi parted company on good terms, so maybe the team would take him back. McMurray also is a previous Ganassi driver, for three seasons, and they parted on less friendly terms.

Hall of Fame is a team in a state of flux. It partnered with Yates Racing this season with Labonte and has announced it is moving to points unknown.

TRG was a start-up this season and has done a decent job considering it has been underfunded, but it will be years before it reaches the competitive level of RCR or Earnhardt Ganassi.

Mears is in a difficult spot, waiting for Childress to sign a sponsor to ensure his return. But the clock is ticking on his Cup career, and if Earnhardt Ganassi doesn't call, Hall of Fame or TRG would be better than being unemployed. In Cup, out of sight is out of mind.

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