It's been a rough start to the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for Casey Mears. His engine blew up in one of the qualifying races for the Daytona 500 and he had a fuel pump failure at the Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Four races into the Sprint Cup Series season, Mears is in 33rd place in the standings and sitting on the cutoff point for teams that earn automatic starting spots in races; the teams in the top 35 in the Cup standings are guaranteed to start after the fifth race of the season.
That makes Sunday's Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, the fifth race of the Cup season, crucial for Mears. The driver of the No. 13 Germain Racing Toyota, from Bakersfield, Calif., is only one point ahead of Dave Blaney and three points ahead of rookie Andy Lally in the Cup standings.
The pressure is on. A bad race on Sunday could knock Mears and his team out of the top 35 heading into the race at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. He needs to post a strong enough finish to secure a starting spot in the next race. Jeff Burton, Joey Logano and Brian Vickers are drivers who are also looking for some breathing room near on the bubble.
"We're out to prove, one, that we want to run better than that," Mears said. "We want to run up front. For sure, there's some concern. If we have one really bad weekend, we could be looking to be on the outside of the points going into Martinsville. That's what we definitely don't want to do."
Mears has come a long way since he entered the Cup arena. Since 2003, when he begain his Cup career, he has raced for Cup team owners Chip Ganassi, Richard Childress and Rick Hendrick. While he's never been the star driver on any of his teams, he has been in some great cars.
"I've been with some good teams. I just haven't had any consistency to really build anything," Mears said. "Just when it starts to go in the right direction, something changes."
He won the first race of his Cup career, the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., with Hendrick Motorsports in 2007. But when Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined Hendrick Motorsports, Mears lost the crew chief who guided him to his first Cup win. Darian Grubb moved to Earnhardt's team and Mears was teamed up with Alan Gustafson, who is now the crew chief for Jeff Gordon's team at Hendrick Motorsports.
"When Dale Jr. came in, they decided to move Darian on Dale's team as an engineer," Mears said. "Total change again. It was the year we switched over to the COT [Car of Tomorrow] car full time. It was probably one of the worst starts to a year Hendrick Motorsports ever had as far as just not having a good handle on that car. We didn't run that well as a whole."
A year after winning the Coca-Cola 600, Mears decided to leave Hendrick Motorsports for Richard Childress Racing. Mark Martin joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 and took over the Mears' car and team. Mears struggled with RCR. He had only four top-10 finishes in 2009, his lowest total since his rookie season.
"I go over to RCR and started out with Gil Martin," Mears said. "It was going great. Kevin [Harvick] and Todd [Barrier] were kind of having their battles. Kevin wanted to make a change. They ended up changing Gil and I, and I got with Todd. It was just another change.
"Midseason, Todd and I were far and away the best RCR car out of the group consistently throughout the remainder of the season. We found out Jack Daniels wasn't going to return just because of the economic situation in the U.S."
After spending a little more than a season with Richard Childress Racing, Mears lost his sponsorship and was without a team. He spent 2010 racing for four teams, including as a fill-in driver for Vickers at Red Bull Racing, before landing with Germain Racing for the last eight races of the season.
"All the seats were already taken. It turned into a real mess," Mears said. "I started out in the 90 car. Went and drove for Tommy Baldwin some, went to fill in for Vickers for a few races with Red Bull. Went back to Tommy and finished off the year with Germain Racing."
Mears and Germain Racing only have enough funding for a partial Cup schedule in 2011 (18 races) and are looking for a way to run the entire season.
"I feel fortunate to be now with the Germain Racing team," Mears said. "I really like working with [crew chief] Bootie Barker. Unfortunately, right now, we don't have a full year secure. But we do have some good stuff. All the guys are hard workers and it's a great group, great organization. If we get the full funding we should be fine."
Should be. If he runs well at Fontana come Sunday.