Commentary

Mears OK with being the other guy at Hendrick Motorsports

Don't worry about Casey Mears, the other Hendrick driver. Being teammates with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson -- and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in '08 -- has its advantages, Marty Smith writes in Door-To-Door.

Updated: September 27, 2007, 9:15 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

The analysis is sadly incomplete, yet has been uttered time and again since June 13, spewed incessantly by TV bobbleheads and pounded into powder by columnists and incoherently slurred between frothy sips by fans at every watering hole in the land:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will join Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in forming one of the most formidable driver lineups in NASCAR history at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

Casey Mears and Jeff Gordon
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesJeff Gordon's shadow looms large for Casey Mears, right, at Hendrick Motorsports.

That's true. But what happened to Casey Mears? He retire or something?

"There's a reason for that," laughed Mears about his rank as Hendrick's "other guy."

"The résumé."

The boy's a realist. Gordon is a four-time champion. Only five men in history have gone to more NASCAR victory lanes than he has. Johnson is the defending champ, and he has more wins since his 2002 Cup Series debut (29) than any other driver in the sport during that span. Earnhardt is, well, Earnhardt. Mr. Popular. Untouchable in fan support and adulation. Leader of a red army shifting soon to green. He moves more T-shirts than UPS.

And Mears?

"I've won a race -- a race," he laughed. "My uncle [Rick] always said this: 'Until you go out and put those numbers on the board, well ... that's your job. Period.' Until I do that, I don't expect [attention]."

He's at peace, and in the best position of his career to consistently excel despite yet another pending move. Next up: No. 5.

Mears is nomadic, though not by choice. His first three Cup seasons were spent in Chip Ganassi's No. 41. But when Reed Sorenson was bumped up to that ride for the 2006 season, Mears was left to wonder. Then Jamie McMurray moved on to Roush, and Ganassi put Mears in the No. 42 Texaco ride. That meant a new start with a new crew and crew chief.

Door-To-Door
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Communication takes time. "Small change" to one driver may be "Complete piece of junk" to another. And when a crew chief can decipher what his driver wants and implement it into the car, mediocre shifts to competitive.

Mears had that communication with Jimmy Elledge in the No. 41 before the move to the No. 42. He'd just gotten right with Donnie Wingo before the move to Hendrick Motorsports. He and Darian Grubb are in sync like Justin Timberlake -- just in time to break up the band.

Alan Gustafson will be his fourth crew chief in as many years. But he's cool with it. The No. 5 team is established, so unlike last year, Mears' team won't have to spend the season's first three months building cars to suit his style. They'll be ready off the truck at testing in January.

But he can't lie. His initial thought was, "Not again -- different sponsors, different number, different crew chief. Not again." It was slightly frustrating. But once the endgame was explained to him, he quickly realized the positives far outweigh the minimal hassle involved in making the change.

"I'm very excited about the opportunity, I really am," Mears said. "The 5 team is a great team. They've been together for a while, and have shown they're capable of doing really well.

"But at the same time, I'm ready to get some consistency. It's tough to do something different every year. Every year you're expected to go win right out of the gate, and chemistry is a big part of that."

Mears left the mall in South Charlotte, N.C., this balmy autumn afternoon right at rush hour. Not interested in idling in traffic, he opted instead to take in a movie: "Mr. Woodcock." It stars Stifler from "American Pie" as a fat kid who grows up to be an award-winning self-help author, the kind of guy who uses life's setbacks to fuel the greater good.

Sounds a lot like Mears' career (sans the fat kid part). He's been fueling the greater good for some time now.

"Quite honestly, it's kinda nice sometimes flying below the radar and letting [Gordon and Johnson] take the heat," Mears chuckled. "How everybody else perceives that around us, it doesn't really affect me very much.

"Media attention is based on how you run and what you've done. If you start off guns a-blazin', it sticks with you. But we flew below the radar the last few years. And now, paired up with champions and Junior, the most popular driver, if I expected to get notoriety, I'd be crazy.

"But that doesn't bother me."

Hi Marty,

I am a fan of Dave Blaney at Bill Davis Racing. Knowing that Jacques Villeneuve has signed with BDR and that Dave hasn't signed yet with the team, what is his status with BDR for next season? Should we "Blaniacs" be worried?

-- Nick in Ohio

Fear not, Nick. It's a done deal. BDR two weeks ago exercised its option on Blaney's contract for the 2008 season, which also includes provisions to move forward after that, according to the team's general manager, Mike Brown.

"Dave and I set down a couple of weeks ago, worked out a few minor details of our agreement and signed off on it within minutes," Brown said.

Brown said Blaney is the perfect fit for Caterpillar and its dealer/customer group. He's at the shop daily, working with Tommy Baldwin and the competition group to better the program. Blaney and Baldwin have developed that all-important chemistry, and the crew has responded to that. The challenge for the No. 22 bunch is finishing the deal. They've rarely finished as well as they've run in 2007.

Brown said they fully expect to compete from the outset in 2008, and if that indeed happens, Blaney's future at BDR will take care of itself.

Marty,

Explain the Gillett Evernham/Petty merger to me. Why would Evernham want to do it, and why isn't Petty begging for them to go on and finalize it?

-- William Holtz, Anniston, Ala.

For Evernham, William, the answer is simple:Bobby Labonte. Ray Evernham told me the merger trend is about survival, that to live they must grow. Everyone's trying to match Rick Hendrick's business model. Evernham is concerned about Toyota coming in and giving Joe Gibbs Racing "a gazillion dollars," and in turn losing key employees to twice the salary.

Labonte would be clutch for GEM. They badly need his veteran experience.

The big thing for the Pettys is maintaining the brand. The Petty brand is one of the most recognizable in the country, much less racing, much less NASCAR. They have the Nextel Cup operation, the Driving Experience, the Victory Junction Gang Camp. They won't forego the brand.

Moreover, they won't merge/align at the expense of substantial job loss. I spoke with Robbie Loomis about this at Dover, and he told me he feels the merger trend in the sport is unhealthy. He cited the DEI/Ginn merger and the jobs lost therein.

"There was probably, and this is a low number, 50 or 75 people that were put out of work," Loomis said. "They didn't get better, didn't create more opportunities. With Petty Enterprises, everything we talk about is growing the company. How do we grow and move forward?"

Loomis also told me GEM isn't their only option.

"We have two or three people we've been talking to a lot," Loomis said. "There's some other deals out there that would grow us even more. That's what Richard's got to look at -- what's going to take us the furthest down the road?"

Dear Marty Smith,

Can you tell me if Jimmie Johnson and Dale Jr. are going to be in the same race shop next year? Are they really going to separate Jimmie's and Gordon's teams? Big mistake if they do! I heard this and wanted to know if it was true?

-- Debbie, hometown unknown

No, Debbie, they won't. The Nos. 24 and 48 teams will remain in the same shop, while Junior will be paired up with Mears' No. 5 team. Earnhardt has told me recently that he likes that setup. He and Mears have grown much closer since he announced the move to HMS. They've vacationed together and have similar interests. It should make for good inter-team chemistry.

And with Tony Eury Jr. heading to Hendrick in a couple of weeks, he'll have a great jump on Hendrick's policies and practices, which are far more engineering-based than that to which he's accustomed. HMS's lead engineer, Rex Stump, will give him a whirlwind tutorial, I'm certain. (For you longtime fans, Stump is the guy that built the T-Rex car. That should tell you something about his intelligence.)

Oh, and you're right. HMS would be crazy to split up the 24 and 48. Since 2002, that shop has produced 48 victories and counting.

Hey Marty,

With Edwards' car coming in under the sticks, it got me thinking about what NASCAR would do if the checkered flag flies at Homestead and the car that wins the title by less than 25 points doesn't pass inspection.

Taking a championship away on Tuesday or Wednesday after the season is over doesn't look good in the eyes of the non-race fan (almost turns this in the Tour de NASCAR) but they'd have to do that to be consistent, right?

-- 3-man, Laurel, Md.

Sure would, Murph, because the team that ranked second would demand tangible evidence as to the supposed transgressor's guilt or innocence. If a shock collapses innocently during competition, teams and media would demand proof and an explanation as to its benefit. There's way too much riding on the decision.

That'd be a ridiculous scenario, but it'd be the perfect culmination of the craziest season in NASCAR history.

Marty,

Why wouldn't Yates look into Mayfield? They will now have two young kids who need time to get the team back to winning, shouldn't they be looking for someone like Mayfield?

I am not a Mayfield fan, but I am a Yates fan, and we need someone who can win now, not in five years. … Don't get me wrong about their driving, but there are only so many Kyle Buschs and Denny Hamlins.

-- John, Glenville, N.Y.

But conversely, John, there are also only so many 20-somethings given the luxury of immediately stepping into championship-caliber equipment, as Busch and Hamlin did.

Travis Kvapil got the second Yates car in a dream scenario. When Doug Yates made the decision to align with Roush Fenway, it instantly created a home for a driver Jack Roush considers Cup-caliber. Moreover, it gives Roush Fenway a place to stash that fifth Cup operation come 2009, when the four-car team limit comes into play.

It's a win-win for all involved.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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