Casey Mears drove in 252 consecutive races after making his Sprint Cup debut with Ganassi Racing in 2003. Those seven solid years included two with Hendrick Motorsports and one with Richard Childress Racing. He was 14th in the points in 2006, his final season with Ganassi, and 15th with a win in the 600-mile race at Charlotte in 2007 with Hendrick.
But by the start of 2010, the bottom had fallen out. Mears had finished 21st for Childress the previous season, but sponsor Jack Daniels didn't return and Mears was released. He found himself in much the same position Brian Vickers and David Ragan are in now, drivers with a victory and pretty good Cup resumes, scrambling to stay in Cup.
Mears started the 2010 season with Key Motorsports, a Nationwide team trying to move up to Cup. Mears didn't qualify for the Daytona 500, the first race he'd ever missed. It became a bad habit with Key. Mears made only one race, finishing 30th at Bristol, in his six attempts with Key before moving on. He drove in four races, replacing Brian Vickers, who was out with a serious illness, at Red Bull and four with Tommy Baldwin's new team.
"I bounced around," Mears recalled. "I sat home half of the weekends because I didn't have anything. I drove for Tommy and I really liked Tommy and it was a good relationship in that regard. I had an opportunity with Red Bull and they weren't running well and it didn't work out. The season had been hectic and forgettable."
With 13 races remaining, Germain Racing hired Mears to replace Max Papis. The team was out of the top-35 in owner points. Mears qualified on speed for 12 of the 13 races and was retained for 2011.
Germain was a relative newcomer to Cup. It has two championships in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with Todd Bodine, but it didn't join Cup until 2009. In 2011, the team had Geico sponsorship for about half the races.
Mears and Germain went to Daytona without a guaranteed starting position in the 500 last year, but two blown engines, one in the 150-mile qualifying race, knocked them out.
From there, Mears started 35 straight races. He finished 31st in the 2011 driver points and the team was 32nd in owner points, putting the No. 13 into the Daytona 500 next month. Geico extended its sponsorship with the team until 2014 and increased its sponsorship to 22 races. Owner Bob Germain switched manufacturers from Toyota to Ford, buying cars from Roush Fenway and leasing engines from Roush-Yates.
"Germain is fairly new to the Cup series and it's been fun to take the program in the right direction," Mears said. "We're reaping some of the benefits of all the hard work we put in last year. It's a better situation with Geico stepping up and we're one of the few teams in Cup that has increased sponsorship. It's shaping up to be a good year.
"We were able to get into the position [top 35 in owner points] that we got it into last year and we can improve upon it now. With Roush-Yates engines and cars from Roush, we know we can contend week in and week out. We felt like we struggled on the mile-and-a-half tracks most of the time last year because we were a little off on downforce and we know the Roush Fords run well on those tracks."
Mears expects the team to continue to make progress in the points, but he's realistic about how far forward they can get.
"In my heart, I'm a racer and my goal is to win races," Mears said. "But if we can be in the top 25 in points with some top-10s and top-fives and run at the front sometimes, we'll have improved a substantial amount. If you look at last season, there are a lot of good teams who didn't finish in the top 20. It would be a huge accomplishment for us to get to the top 20."
The 33-year-old Mears has rebuilt his career and helped build Germain into a respectable Cup organization in a little over a season.
"It's all good," Mears said. "After things fell apart at Childress, joining Germain has been a blessing in disguise. We have a lot of good things going in the right direction."