Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR
In so many ways, Casey Mears had a great night last Sunday at Daytona. After starting ninth, he ran up front for most of the race, along the way outlasting his more famous Hendrick Motorsports teammates. Jeff Gordon had crashed out of the race on lap 186. Jimmie Johnson had wrecked, as well. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. had begun to fade after missing the pits during a caution on Lap 178. Mears was well positioned in the top five with just six laps to run. But then he was late sliding outside to get in front of Tony Stewart, who's car tapped Mears' No. 5 Chevy in the rear bumper and sent it spinning. The result: a 35th-place finish and a bitter DNF.
The first 194 laps of the race were a reminder of how well Mears is capable of racing. The mistake that ended his night was a reminder that the 29-year-old Californian still has some things to learn about finishing races. A former open-wheel prodigy, Mears struggled early in his career to learn how to handle heavy stock cars and crowded racetracks. But last year, things really seemed to click. He won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May and then reeled off four top-10 finishes in his next nine races. He followed that up later in the season with four straight top-10 results in the first four races of the Chase.
What Mears has lacked is consistency. His 15th-place finish in the points standings last year bears that out. He seems very capable now of running up front, but to make the Chase he has to be able to finish races. That's was the strategy behind Clint Bowyer's success last year. Bowyer and crew chief Gil Martin were willing to sacrifice wins in favor of top-10 or top-15 finishes during the regular season. It's no accident that Bowyer finished all 36 races a year ago. The two men didn't worry about winning races until they were in the Chase, and the result was a dominating performance at Loudon last September and a third-place finish in the point standings.
Mears seems more than ready to run up front with the rest of the talent at Hendrick Motorsports. Now what's needed is an ability to nurse his car across the line in every race. To do that, he'll have to cut down on mistakes like the one he made last Sunday. If he can do that, he could be the surprise success story of 2008.
How to Drive ...
Kyle Busch talks about racing at Fontana:
"That place is tough. It's really a hard racetrack to get hold of now, especially when it's hot and the sun is out. There are two completely different types of racing when you run the top versus the bottom groove. You can run from the top to the bottom, but when you run the bottom you really feel like you're puttering around the racetrack. You feel like you aren't making up any time on the bottom, but when you are running the top groove you feel like you're getting the job done. The guys who run the bottom have a little bit more patience and handle it better than the guys who are on the gas on top."
113.9: Driver rating at California for Matt Kenseth, the best of any driver in the top 12 of the point standings.
7.2: Average running position for Kenseth at Californa, the best of any driver in the series.
6: Races won at California by owner Rick Hendrick, more than any other owner in the Sprint Cup series.
Pro Rasslin' Meter
Sunday came and went without any major confrontations between drivers, so the smack-talk factor that goes into figuring which way the meter points was basically nil. That was the case, too, with any suspicion of the "fix" being in for a certain driver. Not only was the race devoid of suspicious caution flags, it featured a truly exciting finish with an unexpected result. Fixed? No way. Just good racin'. And so the meter points down this week.
Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR
NASCAR fans at the Daytona 500 leave their own mark on the race -- literally -- by signing the finish line before the start last Sunday.
Sept. 4, 2005: Cup rookie Kyle Busch leads a race-high 95 laps en route to his first career Cup victory at California Speedway.