CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Casey Mears will never be the best driver in NASCAR, and chances are slim that he'll ever be a championship contender.
Still, he's got talent and charm and a rich family history in the sport — all qualities that should have him racing each week.
Instead, he found himself standing in the garage in street clothes for a third straight weekend as his friends raced on without him at Las Vegas. Mears is racing right now for startup Keyed-Up Motorsports, a team with old cars, underpowered motors and very little financial support.
Team owner Raymond Key only committed to run the first two months of the season when he signed Mears, but the driver didn't have many choices. Sponsorship cutbacks cost him his job at Richard Childress Racing, which is not fielding the car Mears drove to a 21st-place finish in the 2009 final standings.
He hoped and waited to see if Childress could land sponsorship to keep that fourth team running, and when it finally became clear that the economic conditions meant Mears was out at RCR, there wasn't a lot left for free agent drivers.
"You look around at what's out there, and you have some hard decisions to make," Mears said. "Do you go to the Trucks or the Nationwide Series? Sure, if it's in competitive equipment. But you can't just take a ride to take a ride and make yourself look bad every week."
With Keyed-Up, though, most everyone knows what Mears is working with: Very little.
The team bought out-of-use cars from Dale Earnhardt Inc., and instead of entering into a leasing program with a well-established engine company, owner Raymond Key bought his own motors. Maintaining them, tuning them and getting them ready to make races has likely been far more challenging than Key could have imagined.
Because it's a new team, the No. 90 Chevrolet was not automatically qualified for the season-opening Daytona 500. Mears had to race his way into the field, and came up short when he had to lift off the gas late to avoid wrecking with a loose car in front of him.
It meant Mears, nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears and a member of one of racing's most famous families, missed the Daytona 500 for the first time in eight years.
Then he missed making the race at California, and again last week at Las Vegas.
Still, he roamed the garage on Saturday, watching practice and talking to as many people as he could.
His next plan?
"We'll just keep trying to make races," Mears said. "But we can't afford to be off, that's for sure. If we're gonna go, we need to get some current stuff and go racing hard. It's just really frustrating right now because you want to be in the race, you'd do anything to be in the race, and we're coming up just short."
Remember, Mears has driven for top teams before and has shown to be at least one of the top 20 drivers. He was 14th in the 2006 standings with Chip Ganassi, then moved to Hendrick Motorsports and won the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 in 2007 on Memorial Day — a day linked to his family through Rick Mears' Indianapolis victories.
HMS let Mears go at the end of 2008 when the team signed Mark Martin, and Mears landed at RCR just as the team was about to start a season-long slide into mediocrity. Three months into the season, Childress swapped crews for Kevin Harvick and Mears, giving Mears his seventh crew chief in seven seasons. Mears is positive that instability has been one of the major reasons his numbers aren't as good as they could be: In 252 starts, he has one win and 46 top-10s, but has not finished lower than 22nd in the standings since his second season of full-time Cup racing.
"When Richard hired me, one of the first things he said is I just needed a little bit of stability," Mears said.
As Mears watched RCR driver Jeff Burton practice at Las Vegas, it was Childress who stopped and leaned in to whisper something in Mears' ear. As he walked off, Childress could be heard making a pledge of future help.
Maybe that means use of one of the stout Earnhardt-Childress Racing motors that have the RCR and Ganassi drivers running up front this year, and maybe even in time for this weekend's race at Atlanta.
Because if Mears can get into the field, he promises his intention will be to run the entire race.
That's a point of contention the last year or so in the Cup garage, where teams have entered events with no intention of running the actual race. Called "start-and-park teams" the cars earn a spot in the field, but pull off the track shortly after to collect a sizable payday in last-place money.
At Vegas, it was Aric Almirola in a car owned by Phoenix Racing that ducked off the track after 23 laps for what was listed as a vibration. The team collected $79,431 for the effort.
NASCAR is trying to make it tougher on start-and-parks with a new policy of inspecting the first car out of the race that wasn't involved in an accident. It could force teams to run longer, or, at the very minimum, ensure the cars will be forced to prove they are legal and made the race fair and square.
"It's frustrating because you know who is out here," Mears said. "There's people out here who everyone knows isn't going to run the whole race. We'll run the race. We've just got to get in there first."
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