Casey Mears is a moving target.
No, wait, that was about four sponsors ago.
In the fall race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in 2005, Mears drove the No. 41 Dodge sponsored by Target to a sixth-place finish. Last fall, he finished 12th driving the No. 42 Dodge sponsored by Texaco/Havoline.
This year, he moved from Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates to Hendrick Motorsports. In May's Coca-Cola 600, he drove the No. 25 Chevrolet sponsored by the National Guard and GMAC to his first Nextel Cup victory.
But after Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at the 1.5-mile Charlotte track, the next time he races here he’ll be in the No. 5 Chevrolet sponsored by Kellogg’s.
“The most difficult part of this for me has been all of the changes,” said Mears, a 29-year-old driver who returns to the scene of his first win on one of his best streaks in Nextel Cup racing.
Mears is the only driver to score top-10 finishes in the first four races of the Chase. Even though Mears is not in the Chase, his finishes of eighth at New Hampshire, sixth at Dover, fourth at Kansas and sixth at Talladega have done his team a world of good.
After 26 races, Mears was 256 points out of 13th – the best position anyone outside the Chase can finish this year. Now, he’s just 116 back of that spot.
But to truly appreciate how far Mears has come in his first season with the Hendrick team, you have to go back to where he and his team were the last time they visited Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
In the season’s first 11 races, the No. 25 finished outside the top 25 seven times and Mears came into the Coca-Cola 600 on the brink of NASCAR purgatory – at 35th in the standings.
Those weren't the happiest of times, of course, but Mears said there was no panic by that point, either. Darian Grubb hadn't become crew chief for the team until after January's testing at Daytona, and their cars were too different from those of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch for those teammates to be of much help.
“We were still getting things squared away at the shop,” Mears said. “It was a matter of getting more similar cars built. If we could have started the season in those cars, I think we’d be looking at a different season for us.”
The difference started showing up at Charlotte. Mears ran well all night, and then Grubb’s decision to stretch the final load of fuel paid off in an emotional victory in one of the sport’s premiere events.
“Yes, we won because of fuel mileage,” Mears said. “But a lot of guys who finished behind us gambled on fuel, too.
"We also were willing to risk it where others weren’t. But we had a competitive race car all night, and even if it hadn’t been a mileage race, we wouldn’t have finished worse than a top five.”
In the 19-race stretch that began with that race, Mears has finished outside the top 25 only three times. His string of four-straight top 10s gives him 10 this year, already a career high.
Part of the progress, undoubtedly, stems from the time he and Grubb have had to learn about each other. But, as has been the pattern for Mears in his Cup career, there’s another change in the offing.
Next year, Mears will move to the team Busch is working with this year when Busch moves to Joe Gibbs Racing for 2008. Alan Gustafson, Busch’s current crew chief, will stay with the No. 5 team and work with Mears.
But Grubb will have a role, too.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is basically moving into what is now Mears’ team, but he’s bringing crew chief Tony Eury Jr. with him. That will allow Grubb to work with both the No. 5 and Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 teams next year.
“I just look at it as a great opportunity,” Mears said. “That’s a great team over there and they have had a lot of success. I think going from the 25 to the 5 is going to be relatively painless. I already know a lot of the guys over there, and the cars are going to be similar.”
But there’s still business at hand this year, Mears said.
With his team running well, the season’s second race at Charlotte couldn’t be coming at a better time. Johnson swept the points races here two years ago and Kasey Kahne won both of them last year.
“We have a legitimate shot,” Mears said. “We have a car and a team that’s capable of doing it.”