Mears' future at Hendrick Motorsports not certain
SONOMA, Calif. -- Just two months ago, car owner Rick Hendrick sounded almost certain Casey Mears would be driving his No. 5 Chevrolet next season.
Now he doesn't sound so sure.
Asked before Sunday's race at Infineon Raceway if he was committed to Mears through for the full length of his contract, Hendrick avoided the question.
"I'm committed to him right now," Hendrick said. "I'm committed to him making that car run better right now."
Mears' contract runs through the end of the 2009 season, and although he scored his only career victory at Charlotte last year with Hendrick, his results haven't matched the team potential. He had 10 top-10s last season and finished 15th in the points last year. This season, he has just two top-10s and is 27th in the standings.
"(I'm concentrating) on getting that car running better and working hard on that anything else is speculation," Hendrick said. "We're looking at everything right now. I'm not ready to make any announcements. What's there to tell? We want to get it in the Chase and want to win races."
Mears finished a season-best fifth Sunday.
"We just have gotten off to a horrible start this year and it just feels really good to get a top-five," he said. "Everybody on the team needed this. These guys have been working really hard, everybody has been working really hard to find out exactly what it is to do to get better."
The speculation comes as rumors swirl about Mark Martin's future with Dale Earnhardt Inc. He's previously been mentioned as a candidate to split the Cup schedule with Scott Speed at Red Bull Racing, but there could also be a similar role for him in the No. 5 car for Hendrick.
One scenario could have Martin splitting the seat time with Brad Keselowski, who currently drives a Nationwide Series car for JR Motorsports. Hendrick is partners with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in that venture, and Martin occasionally drives a car for them in that series.
Martin is currently splitting a ride with Aric Almirola for DEI, but the team wants Almirola in a full-time ride in 2009.
"Aric is ready for a full-time ride," said DEI vice president John Story. "We have to get him in a car full time somehow, someway."
NO REPEAT: Juan Pablo Montoya had his game-face on before the start of Sunday's race, confident he had a chance to repeat as the winner.
His car was good enough early, as he moved through the field and into the lead. But his chances ended when, running second, he was spun by Marcos Ambrose and fell all the way back to 14th.
He rallied to finish sixth, but his team was disappointed with the outcome.
"It was one of those deals where we were hoping for a little bit more," Montoya said. "The team did a great job on the pit stops and we were competitive, we just got tangled up with (Ambrose) and it cost us a few spots."
Crew chief Brian Pattie was a bit more direct.
"It was just frustrating because we were running at the front and ended up finishing sixth, so that kind of sucks," Pattie said.
Ambrose, who was making his Cup Series debut, later had his own trouble when he was spun by Elliott Sadler. The contact came at the same moment he was shifting and caused his gearbox to break, leading to a 42nd-place finish.
"It's just very unfortunate," Ambrose said. "I couldn't believe it, you know? Here I am passing Jeff Gordon and racing with (Dale) Earnhardt (Jr.) -- it's just fantastic. It's what I dreamed about, dreamed what it would be like. It's just a shame we couldn't finish the race."
GORDON RALLIES: In the early stages of Sunday's race, Jeff Gordon was so frustrated with his race car he offered a profanity-laced assessment of his struggles over the team radio.
It sent crew chief Steve Letarte into a slew of changes to the car that helped Gordon rally to a third-place finish.
"I am excited ... I think it shows what kind of race team we have -- we never give up and we fight hard," Gordon said. "We like this place, we run good here. We weren't bad in the end, but we really just missed it in the beginning. I couldn't drive it. I thought I was going to wreck.
"Steve made some great adjustments and made a great (strategy) call ... then we got the car pretty good and drove up through there."
DON'T PASS THE PACE CAR: NASCAR warned the drivers before Sunday's race not to pass the pace car during the caution period, an offense Dale Earnhardt Jr. did several times in last week's victory at Michigan.
Earnhardt passed the pace car under caution in an attempt to conserve fuel. He'd pass the pace car, shut off the engine and coast. NASCAR eventually warned Earnhardt not to pass the pace car again and he obeyed.
During Sunday morning's driver meeting, NASCAR race director David Hoots reminded the drivers that passing the pace car is illegal.
"We know that under road-racing conditions, fuel management is very important, drivers," Hoots said. "Do all you can to conserve fuel, but hold your respective track positions when you do so."
TEMPORARY HELP: Robby Gordon had no sponsorship when he arrived at Infineon Raceway. By the time the race began, he had three different companies on his car.
Camping World and King Taco agreed to adorn the car and, after J.J. Yeley failed to make the race, sponsor DLP HDTV also moved onto Gordon's car.
"While it was disappointing to show up here with a black race car, I'm very happy that (the companies) helped us out this weekend," Gordon said. "We really appreciate them stepping up and sponsoring our team this weekend."
All the sponsorships are temporary, and DLP will move back to Hall of Fame Racing for next week's race in New Hampshire.
"We appreciate the effort of Hall of Fame Racing to ensure that DLP HDTV will have a presence in Sunday's race at Sonoma," said sponsorship marketing manager Dave Duncan. "We wish Robby the best of luck on Sunday and look forward to supporting J.J. Yeley ... next week at New Hampshire."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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