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Rookie Mears' maturity impresses boss

Posted: Thursday July 31, 2003 10:25 AM

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- The name Mears is synonymous with excellence in open-wheel racing, but the youngest member of the family has chosen a different road in pursuit of stardom.

Uncle Rick won the Indianapolis 500 a record-tying four times, and father Roger was an off-road champion. Casey Mears decided to try NASCAR, and despite the growing pains of a rookie, he is making an impression that belies his 25 years.

"I always try to think things out rather than let the excitement or disappointment dictate decisions on what I may or may not do with the car," he said. "Just growing up in a racing family, I've learned so much."

He absorbed it at an extremely young age, thanks in part to a father who conveniently misread the date on his son's birth certificate. Casey, who looks as if he recently attended his high school prom, began racing at 12.

He was supposed to be 16 to race off-road cars in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Series' go-karts, and Roger is astonished that anyone believed he was.

"He didn't look like he was 16, but he certainly acted like it," the elder Mears said.

Casey's maturity has shown in NASCAR, too.

He is 34th in points and third in the rookie race, with a best finish of 15th as he begins preparations for Sunday's Brickyard 400. The results might not be so impressive, but owner Chip Ganassi didn't expect Mears to strap himself into a stock car and race as well as the established drivers.

Ganassi liked Mears' racing experience, but realized that just one season in a Busch series car might not be enough to prepare him for the next level.

"My expectation with Casey for his rookie season was to see how well he adapted to Winston Cup racing," said Ganassi, a former CART driver. "He has taken quite a leap here moving into Winston Cup.

"His racing skills have shown through this season, as he is learning and adapting to this form of racing. Casey is right on track with his developments."

Ganassi is giving Mears every chance to excel as he grows into the job. That's why Mears did the 900-mile Pocono triple last weekend, winning twice in the ARCA series before posting a 35th-place finish Sunday in the Pennsylvania 500.

Crew chief Jimmy Elledge sees Mears' maturity as a plus that allows him to concentrate on preparing the car.

"He doesn't require a lot of building up," Elledge said. "He doesn't let things get to him."

Among those things is the pressure that goes with driving for one of the world's most demanding and successful car owners. Ganassi has never hesitated to fire drivers who didn't perform up to expectations.

Mears grew up in CART -- where he won in Indy Lights -- and was familiar with Ganassi's reputation. He got into NASCAR at the suggestion of his father, who drives Casey's motorhome from track to track. But Casey had his doubts.

"There was a big question in my mind," he said. "Chip's always been great to me, but the things that happened in the past to other drivers made me nervous. I thought, 'I am I going to get the proper time I need to develop?' But he's 180 degrees opposite of what I thought, and hugely supportive."

Elledge marvels at his driver's ability to ignore speculation that Mears must produce to stay in the ride. The crew chief believes that will be achieved, and Ganassi goes even further.

"Our goal with Casey is to develop him into a great stock car driver," the car owner said. "That takes time."

Elledge says very little of his time is spent propping up the young driver, who is showing virtually no signs of frustration as he learns his trade.

"We have gone into a few races with terrible cars from Happy Hour and he hasn't really carried that over from Saturday to Sunday," Elledge explained. "Sunday is a new day and he gives 100 percent."

Mears is grateful for the support but knows why he's driving the car -- especially because it bears the Target logo Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya carried to CART championships.

"We're not here to be top 20 or top 15," he said. "We have sponsors that want to win races."

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