Classy Mears doing right things
DOVER, Del. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. was so anxious to end his interview on Friday at Dover International Speedway that he gave short answers and kept a hand on the cracked door to his hauler most of the three-minute and 12-second session.
And then there was Casey Mears.
He's been with more teams -- five -- since the end of last season than many drivers have in a career. His future as a driver doesn't look much brighter than that of Jesse James staying Sandra Bullock's husband. If anybody has a reason to be in a foul mood it's Mears.
Yet there Mears was smiling and taking questions about his latest adventure as a fill-in for Red Bull Racing's Brian Vickers, who is out indefinitely while undergoing treatments for blood clots discovered last week in his legs and around his lungs.
Mears, who last month was the backup for Denny Hamlin after Hamlin underwent knee surgery, doesn't want to be known as a fill-in. He wants the chance to prove he can compete with the top drivers even though some would argue he's had more than his fair share between rides at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing.
But Mears doesn't mind taking the hard questions, even when they aren't necessarily complimentary. He seldom if ever turns an interview into a combat zone, becomes rude or unprofessional.
At a time when sponsors are disappearing and those that aren't demand more from the face pushing their product, Mears is refreshing.
But some don't and never will. They give the impression they either don't appreciate what they have or remember what it was like on the way up.
"A lot of guys as they have success and hope they get paid millions of dollars they get that Superman syndrome and they don't think they can do anything wrong," said Alan Gustafson, the crew chief for Mark Martin and Mears' former pit boss at HMS. "Sometimes it is good to have that perspective [that Mears does].
"We are all very fortunate to have the opportunity we have. Even though you may not think your opportunity is the greatest that day, still you're lucky to have the opportunity you have."
Kyle Petty, driver turned television analyst, couldn't agree more.
"It's getting rarer in sports to have a great athlete who is very humble and outgoing and has that personality," he said. "For whatever reason most when they get to that point they feel they have a right to be isolated. They feel they have a right not to talk to you, not to have to sign an autograph or shake a hand."
Perhaps they all should walk in Mears' shoes for a day. Perhaps they should remember what it's like to knock on doors of owners and sponsors, to come to the track week after week not knowing if you'll be in the show.
This isn't to suggest Mears isn't responsible for becoming the journeyman driver he is. One win and 12 top-5s in 254 starts isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for an employer. Johnson has more than that in a season, maybe half a season.
Had Mears performed better at HMS and RCR he likely would have the security he so desperately seeks instead of driving for lower-tier organizations hoping for opportunities like he has now.
But you can't say he's washed up. Burton went through four straight winless seasons between 2002 and 2005, collecting only 13 top-5s during that stretch. People said he didn't have what it took anymore.
The next three years he won four races and finished in the top eight in points. Heck, he was second in points and a threat to win the title with five races remaining in 2008.
"Like any driver he has to be in the right situation," Burton said of Mears. "He didn't have much success at Hendrick and everybody said he couldn't do it. Everybody gets in a situation where something doesn't work and you don't know why.
"Casey is a guy that can do it, and he certainly has the right attitude."
That attitude, along with just enough ability to make owners believe he can win, has kept Mears around. He definitely has the personality that sponsors and owners crave.
We saw that as he stepped in for Vickers.
"He's such a class act," said Todd Berrier, Mears' crew chief the final part of last season at RCR. "He's such a team player. He would always understand anything that was going to benefit the company may not benefit him in general. That's a good trait to have when you're in these big organizations.
"He's going to be an asset to those guys."
By those guys he means Red Bull Racing. Berrier, like Burton, still believes Mears can win. He reminded how close they were to turning the corner before sponsorship ran out at RCR.
He didn't have much success at Hendrick and everybody said he couldn't do it. Everybody gets in a situation where something doesn't work and you don't know why. Casey [Mears] is a guy that can do it, and he certainly has the right attitude.” -- Jeff Burton
Who knows, maybe this will be the break Mears needs, although it's not the one he wants.
According to top medical specialists going off reports of Vickers' symptoms, Vickers could be out three to six months, maybe longer. If it is an extended absence and Mears is given the opportunity to drive, perhaps he'll finally prove all of his skeptics wrong.
Perhaps he'll do well enough that when another ride comes open or another team forms he'll get the call.
"He's a great kid," Red Bull Racing general manager Jay Frye said. "He's learned from the best in Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Weird things happen for weird reasons sometimes. He's got an opportunity and who knows, maybe he can prove what he can do."
That's Mears' goal. While this may seem like he's simply doing a close friend a favor, he's looking out for himself as well.
"Obviously in this position if I show what we can do then you never know what might open up." he said. "So you look at any opportunity like this to use it as potential for something in the future."
It can't be easy living in this uncertainty, but at least Mears does it with integrity. At least he doesn't walk around with a chip on his shoulder as those with far more than him do, although as Petty noted it's easier to be humble when you're one of the have-nots.
"I don't really let it consume me," Mears said. " I don't let it eat me up at night although it's something I want to do with all my heart. If you do that then you're wasting time when you need to be focused on finding rides.
"I fully understand my situation so when I get an opportunity I try to make the most of it, and when I don't I try to focus my energy on trying to find a ride and do something positive with it rather than sulking in it."
We see enough sulking in the garage each weekend, which is a shame considering how many people have been put out of work the past two years because of the economy. To a degree that is expected because only one of 43 drivers can win every week, and like most athletes who compete at high levels, second doesn't make them happy.
But it's nice every once in a while to see a driver like Mears who knows how to handle the disappointment with style.
"Throughout my career I've had a lot of different types of adversity and maybe things not swinging quite your way," Mears said. "If I sat and dwelled on everything that I thought didn't go my way I probably wouldn't be out here right now. I'd probably be on some sort of depression medication.
"You've just got to be positive."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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