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Thursday, January 25, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Casey Mears

Casey Mears Age: 28
0 wins, 2 top 5’s, 8 top 10’s, 12 top 15’s
Avg Start: 22.9 Avg finish: 18.6
Points Standing: 14th Driver Rating: 70.8
#25 National Guard Chevy Crew Chief: Lance McGrew

A driver upgrading from the #42 Ganassi team to a top multi-car team. It’s a familiar story. After four seasons with Ganassi, Casey Mears is moving to Hendrick Motorsports for 2007. The Jamie McMurray saga last year could also be a fair indicator for what will happen with Mears.

He was the 20th ranked driver according the loop data, but 14th in the points standings. This disparity can lead to different conclusions. One is that Ganassi’s equipment is not very good and that Mears maximized his finishes by staying out of trouble. Other stats support his argument. Mears only led 3 laps total, and all were at restrictor plate tracks. This ranks him 42nd among all drivers. Every driver with at least 22 starts had more laps led than Mears. For reference Mears led 104 and 145 laps in the past two seasons. Mears only had 2 DNF’s, further supporting the fact that while he didn’t run great, he took advantage of staying on the track. Obviously the point system rewards avoiding bad finishes. It’s not fully known how well the driver ratings portray success (primarily because there isn’t a published formula). It still appears that Mears outperformed his equipment. Entering next year with a new team poses an interesting question. Was it equipment that was holding back Mears or is he simply a mediocre driver? 2007 should help answer that question.

Last season ended with Mears on the verge of claiming his first NASCAR win at any level. Many predicted Mears would finally break through in 2006. Three races in, things looked true. After a 2nd place at Daytona, Mears finished 7th and 9th at California and Las Vegas respectively. Things dried up after that. He didn’t score another until race 15 at Michigan. He finished with only 2 top 5’s and 8 top 10’s. He did finally get his first NASCAR win, but it came at Chicago in the Busch series.

Although Mears 2006 season didn’t improve on 2005, there were some highlights. He scored a career best 2nd at the Daytona 500 and followed that up with a 7th in the July race. If he wasn’t consistently finishing in the top ten, at least he was finishing races and avoiding trouble. Mears managed to finish in the top 25 in 23 of the first 26 races. It’s not the type of finishes to make the Chase, but can go a long way to a top 15 points finish. With nothing to lose during the Chase, Mears gambled on fuel to finish 2nd at Kansas. He also finished sixth at Martinsville, his first short track top ten.

Now Mears moves to Hendrick Motorsports a team he is familiar with. He is close friends with Jimmie Johnson and was almost hired by Hendrick in 2003 to drive the #5 Busch car. He is certain to get better equipment compared to Ganassi.

Aside from a better ride, it is hard to blame Mears for switching teams. During the 2005 season, Ganassi originally announced plans for four teams with Mears pushed to the new team in favor of two rookies getting established rides. After McMurray’s release was worked out, Mears wound up in the #42 car. Mears’ contract status was also unknown for much of the 2005 season suggesting a tenuous relationship with Ganassi. A move to another team with close personal and professional ties, not to mention better equipment, makes perfect sense for Mears.

Mears gets his third crew chief in as many years. Lance McGrew worked with Brian Vickers for the past two seasons, winning one race. Ironically Mears is a similar storyline to Vickers: A young driver with potential that hasn’t quite put it all together weekly.

Mears is still far from a well-rounded driver. His strength is at 1.5 mile tracks like Las Vegas and Texas, where he has room to run wide open and pass people. His average finish at Vegas is 9.5 with three top 10’s in four races. He averages a 10.5 finish at Texas, including 2 top 5’s. He also is improving at restrictor plate tracks and considering the dominance of Hendrick, this should be a good program for Mears in 2007. The trouble starts when the circuit moves to tighter, challenging tracks like Bristol, Phoenix, Richmond and Darlington. His average finish at the four tracks is 28.7.

On paper switching teams makes sense for Mears. As McMurray proved in 2006, it is not that easy. It is more complex than a driver getting improved equipment. There is team chemistry, differing driving styles and numerous factors that often go unseen to the general public. The only way to have an idea is to look at the results next year and draw conclusions. Mears is good enough to improve on his eight top tens, but it could take some transition time. Maintaining his points standing would be an accomplishment, but realistically he is in for a year of regression.

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