<
>

Mears surprise winner for streaking Hendrick Motorsports

CONCORD, N.C. -- Sixty-two laps into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, the giant scoring tower in the middle of Lowe's Motor Speedway listed only 12 of a possible 43 cars.

Judging from the number of wrecked machines in the garage and drivers in the infield care center after three multicar crashes, it was realistic to believe there were only that many left on the track.

Then it got even stranger.

Brian Vickers, who made it into just six of the first 12 races, led 75 laps after Toyota teams had led only 14 laps all season. Kurt Busch, who started second and led 107 laps, spun out twice by himself before retiring.

Jimmie Johnson, who appeared headed for his fourth win in the past five years in this race, had lug nut problems on pit road to fall from first to 10th with 63 laps remaining.

But in the end it was the same old story.

Well, not really.

Hendrick Motorsports won its fifth straight race and for the ninth time in the last 10, but it didn't come from one of the usual cast of characters: Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Kyle Busch.

Casey Mears collected his first career win because he didn't have to pit for fuel over the final 10 laps as did Tony Stewart, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

It was such a stunning finish that Mears took a moment to look around Victory Lane to make sure he was in the right place.

"I can't believe we're sitting here right now," said Mears, who came to HMS from Chip Ganassi Racing in the offseason. "I'm so happy."

So were the four drivers behind him.

On a night when bizarre was the norm, the unlikely quartet of J.J. Yeley, Kyle Petty, Reed Sorenson and Vickers finished second through fifth.

The top five was so unlikely that there were jokes about whether the top three knew to find the infield media center for postrace interviews.

"It's been so long since I've been here that they spelled my name wrong," said Petty, who will step out of his car after next week's race at Dover to step into the broadcast booth for the first of six events.

In a way, the finish was fitting. There was a Mears in Victory Lane for the first time on Memorial Day weekend since Rick Mears won his fourth Indianapolis 500 in 1991.

And Casey Mears won in the National Guard-sponsored car with the names of soldiers who had lost their lives in the war on terror.

"The one thing that really made it hit home was we had a team member that actually had a relative on the deck lid of our car," Mears said.

It also was a bit of a ironic because the top two finishers have been rumored to be on the hot seat ever since Earnhardt became available on the free-agent market for next season.

"If I get fired, I get fired," said Yeley, who was given a vote of confidence by Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs before the race. "There's a couple of other places I can go. I'm not worried about not having a ride."

The pressure on Mears might have been twofold -- make that threefold -- with his teammates collecting victories and him fighting to stay in the top 35 in owners' points.

"We haven't had the season we've been looking for this year," said Mears, who jumped from 35th to 29th in points. "We've had a lot of failures and mishaps that put us back in the points, but nobody has given up."

Petty was just as happy for Mears as HMS owner Rick Hendrick, who is pretty happy having a season like he's never had before.

"I couldn't be more excited for Casey Mears if his name was Adam Petty," said Petty, who lost his son in a racing accident in 2000. "I am tickled to death for Casey Mears. That kid is a great, great race car driver. Very underrated.

"People don't pay much attention to him. He's struggled. But I tell you what, that kid got what he deserved tonight."

Mears got what he deserved because crew chief Darian Grubb, best known for replacing suspended Chad Knaus as Johnson's crew chief the first four races of last season, made the right call on fuel.

But Mears was quick to note that although people will say this was a fuel mileage win, it wasn't that simple. He pointed out that he had to replace a battery early, run without brake blowers and conserve fuel instead of trying to run down Stewart over the final 50 laps.

"The day didn't just go smooth for us," Mears said. "These guys fought and did a very good job."

The strange night began on Lap 48, when Greg Biffle blew a right front tire that forced him into the wall and destroyed his No. 16 Ford. He blamed it on the tire, the hardest Goodyear will bring to the track this season.

"The tires suck," Biffle said. "The tires suck."

Three laps after the restart, there was a 13-car pileup that sent four cars to the garage and the rest to pit road.

With NASCAR officials screaming for fans and media to clear room for crews to do their job, there was a five-car pileup that sent points leader Gordon to the infield care center.

"It looked a lot worse than it really was," Gordon said.

Ten laps into the next restart, Jeff Burton crashed alone.

Mears never lost sight of the leaders. He stayed within the top 10 most of the night after starting 16th. He solidified the feeling he and Grubb had when they left HMS on Thursday, that they had a car capable of winning even though they were the last Hendrick team anybody would have picked to win.

In the end, Mears was part of a tearful celebration in Victory Lane with his parents and friends, including a few fellow drivers who stopped by to offer congratulations.

Petty predicted it could be the first celebration of many to come. Fox television analyst Darrell Waltrip went so far as to remind viewers that Gordon won his first race in the 600 and won a championship the next season.

"The one thing I do have to say is I have a lot of special people around me," Mears said. "I've got people coming out of the woodwork pulling for us."

Now he has a day off, the last for a long time in NASCAR's 36-race schedule, to enjoy the win. Asked how he would spend it, Mears turned to Hendrick and said, "Can I answer that one?"

Obviously, there's a party involved.

A much-deserved party.

"I'm going to relax," Mears continued. "I had a 10,000-pound gorilla that just jumped off my back."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.