Tim Tuttle: Mears faces tough road to match teammates' feats - Sports Illustrated

Tough acts to follow

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Casey Mears has a difficult assignment ahead of him this season.

Mears drives for Hendrick Motorsports, which has put together a Sprint Cup version of the Yankees' 1927 Murderers' Row with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Johnson has won the last two championships and has 33 victories; Gordon has four championships, finished second last year, and has 81 wins; Earnhardt is lacking a Cup title on his résumé, but has 17 wins.

There's nothing to suggest in Mears' five seasons in NASCAR that he's capable of similar accomplishments. He has one win, last year at Lowe's Motor Speedway in May, in 180 Cup starts. Mears was 15th in the points last season, one position lower than his career-best with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2006.

But good situations in racing often make for breakthrough seasons, with performances beyond any expectations.

How many people expected Clint Bowyer to make the Chase last season? How many thought he would end up third in the points?

Mears is returning with the same organization he raced for last season, but his situation has been upgraded by moving to the No. 5 team. Along with the move, Mears will work with new crew chief Alan Gustafson, who made the Chase the past two seasons with Kyle Busch, who had two wins and qualified for the playoff on the strength of 11 top fives and 20 top 10s.

Mears, driving the No. 25, had five top fives and 10 top 10s. It's not a stretch to believe that with Gustafson calling the shots, Mears could double those totals and make the Chase.

And once you're in the Chase, as Bowyer -- winless in the regular season and 12th seeded -- demonstrated in '07, you can make your move vertically.

"With the history that Alan and everybody's had with the 5 car, for me it's a great opportunity this year," Mears said.

Mears got off to a slow start last season after the No. 25 changed crew chiefs to Darian Grubb a week before Speedweeks. He didn't have the benefit of preseason testing with Grubb like he did this week at Daytona with Gustafson and in future tests at Las Vegas and Fontana.

"Last year, we came in and had a last-minute crew chief change," Mears said. "We did a lot of team building in the first part of the season that kind of got us behind. For the most part, the 5 team is still intact and we've got a great group of guys. They work really well together. The biggest thing that Alan and I have to work on is just getting our communication down. That might take a little bit of time. But for the most part things are going well. I'm just excited about it.

"I really feel like being with Hendrick Motorsports, with a win under my belt last year, we're a lot more prepared to be successful out of the gate ... the fact that these guys have been there, done it, the experience is there. I think that we can definitely make the Chase. I think we can win races. We can contend to win the championship if we make it to the Chase. We've got to take it one step at a time."

It's easy to forget that Mears' Cup career has been a result of on-the-job training in Cup. Like his uncle, Rick, a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, and father, Roger, a two-time Indy 500 starter and off-road champion, Casey Mears seemed headed for an open-wheel career.

As an open-wheel driver, Mears won races going up the circuit ladder and drove partial seasons in CART's Champ Cars and the IRL's IndyCars in '00 and '01. But in '02 NASCAR came calling, offering him a paying job in Busch. Ganassi elevated him to Cup in 2003.

"Getting involved in NASCAR at this level so early, before I was probably prepared to be here, we came in with kind of a splash and then it mellowed out and I've been under the radar ever since," Mears said. "Maybe that gives us the opportunity to focus on what we need to do and not worry about any outside issues.

"I've never raced and been satisfied with being mediocre at best. Anything that I ran before I came to this level, we won races and did well. It's been frustrating the first few years I've had in this sport (Cup)."

Mears recognizes that having three superstars as teammates will bring comparisons, but he's not dwelling on it.

"It never looks good if somebody's running better than you are all the time on the same team, Mears said. "That's a given. That's obvious. But right now, I just don't see that happening. Right now, we're focused on running well.

"The thing that's exciting about working with Alan is the fact that he has been a crew chief for a solid four years. You can't replace that experience. I am excited about being part of the 5 team because of the experience and depth that's there."

It also shouldn't be overlooked that when Brian Vickers decided to leave the team in the middle of '06, the first driver Rick Hendrick tried to get was Mears. How many mistakes has Hendrick made in signing young drivers?

Mears won't be 30 until March. There is often a point in a race car driver's career where the years learning the trade connects with the right circumstance to put those skills to best use. It's entirely possible that's where Mears is going into '08.