Good to the last drop of gas, Casey Mears stole a calculated race that underscored the dominance of his Hendrick team
NOW THAT Rick Hendrick has gotten a win this year from even his No. 4 driver, Casey Mears—giving the owner five straight Nextel Cup victories and nine in 12 races—his team should start getting the credit it deserves from competing outfits. Heading into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, the weary refrain in the Cup garage had been that, but for a few lucky breaks, several wins by the Hendrick trio of Jeff Gordon (three victories), Jimmie Johnson (four) and Kyle Busch (one) could easily have gone to other teams. Whatever. It's clear that Hendrick's operation, off to the best start in Cup history, has been much more than fortunate. The team is stacked top to bottom with more smart and talented people than any other organization in NASCAR.
The Hendrick team's depth was confirmed at Lowe's Motor Speedway when Mears's crew trusted its gas-mileage calculations and coasted to an unlikely victory in the 600. The 29-year-old Mears's first win in 156 career Cup races was the result of a gutsy call by rookie crew chief Darian Grubb, who kept his driver on the track with less than 10 laps to go while leader Tony Stewart and the racers right behind him, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin, pitted for a splash of gas. Said Grubb afterward, "If we'd run out of fuel, we'd have looked like total failures."
Until Sunday, Mears had looked like a bust on the Cup circuit. The nephew of four-time Indy 500 champ Rick Mears, Casey was an open-wheel prodigy who brought lots of hype with him when he switched to NASCAR in 2003. But in four years as Chip Ganassi Racing's No. 1 driver, he never lived up to his notices, struggling, he says, to adjust to the heavier stock cars and shorter tracks.
When his Ganassi contract expired after last season, Mears, who's good friends with Johnson, accepted an offer from Hendrick to drive the number 25 Chevy. He was paired with the accomplished Grubb, a former race engineer for Hendrick who in 2006 guided Johnson to two victories during the suspension of the number 48 car's regular crew chief, Chad Knaus. Mears says that he is just now feeling comfortable with his new team and new car. "This definitely solidifies us as a team that's out to win races and run up front," he says.
That's bad news for Hamlin and Stewart, the Joe Gibbs Racing tandem who have combined to lead 1,259 laps this year but don't have a single win to show for it. The 600 appeared to be setting up perfectly for them: Season points leader Gordon crashed out of the race early, Johnson fell from first to 10th after a bungled pit stop on Lap 338, and Kyle Busch had to nurse his damaged car near the back of the field. But the Gibbs team hadn't figured on Mears's go-for-broke maneuver. Sniffed Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford, whose driver had to pit five laps from the finish and wound up ninth, "There's no glory in winning a fuel-mileage race."
Spoken like a man who has yet to reach Victory Lane in '07. That's where Mears and Hendrick stood on Sunday night, smiling under a shower of confetti—and looking glorious, indeed.
ONLY AT SI.COM Mark Beech's Power Rankings and Racing Fan columns.