Sources: Martin to leave DEI, replace Mears in No. 5

Updated: June 23, 2008, 1:05 PM ET
By David Newton and Marty Smith | ESPN.com

SONOMA, Calif. -- Casey Mears and Mark Martin look to be on the move, and their futures might be linked.

Mears' future with Hendrick Motorsports appears in jeopardy, ESPN.com has learned. Although Mears has one year left on his contract, team owner Rick Hendrick would not commit to the driver of the No. 5 car beyond this season.

"I'm committed to him right now," Hendrick said on Sunday at Infineon Raceway. "I'm committed to him making that car run better right now."

Earlier on Sunday, sources told ESPN.com that Martin would leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. Later, ESPN.com learned that he would replace Mears, making one last full-time run at a championship.

John Story, the vice president of motorsports at DEI, said there are plans to put Aric Almirola into a full-time ride next season. Almirola currently is splitting the No. 8 with the 49-year-old Martin. He indicated the full-time ride would be in the No. 8.

"Aric is ready for a full-time ride," Story said. "There's a lot of interest in sponsorship for Aric. He's a bright young guy and a hell of a race car driver.

Martin
Martin

Aric Almirola

Almirola

"He fits a lot of companies' demographics with his age and Hispanic background. And first and foremost he can drive. We have to get him in a car full time somehow, someway."

Martin, who has been running a part-time schedule the past couple of seasons, was unavailable for comment.

Martin has been pivotal in mentoring DEI's young driving stable, especially Almirola and Regan Smith.

"He's been very good to us and very helpful, and good to our other drivers, so we're working through what's best for Mark, for Aric and for DEI," Story said. "We have five guys we'd like to run full time, and Mark doesn't want to run a full-time schedule.

"So he's looking at something very similar to what he has today. That's the challenge we have. We talk every day trying to make that work."

Hendrick would not address whether Martin could replace Mears. He also would not give Mears a strong endorsement.

"We're looking at everything right now," he said. "We're not ready to make any announcements. Guys, give me a break. What's there to tell? We just want to get in the Chase, we want to run good, we want to win races."

Mears was 27th in points before Sunday's race. He has finished 17th or worse in the last six races and 26th or worse in five of six. In 51 races at HMS he has one win and only 12 top-10s.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who joined the organization this season, has a win and 11 top-10s in 15 races.

Mears has been confident in his return to HMS over the past couple of months. There was doubt in his voice on Sunday, before he went out and finished fifth at Infineon, his best showing this season.

"I don't know yet," he said when asked if he would return in 2009. "Obviously, we haven't had a good season. I think anything could happen. Right now, I don't really have anything good to talk about."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. Marty Smith covers NASCAR for ESPN.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter