Just four races ago, Casey Mears was a man making a statement in a contract season. He was emerging as a star, a leader in the young Chip Ganassi Racing stable.
Now, after finishing 20th or worse in four of his last five, he's hanging by his fingernails to 10th in the points standings and hoping his team can get things turned around before his bid for a first playoff appearance tanks -- as could any contract offer he receives after the season.
"It's really a 26-race season," he said. "It really is. You've got to think about the last 10 as a 10-race season. We've just got to focus on staying inside that top 10. We're in good position right now. We don't have a cushion either way. If we maintain and do better, we can hang inside that top 10.
"As long as we don't have any major issues, I think we'll be fine."
Thing is, it hasn't been major issues that have soured his brilliant early start.
After a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500, Mears hooked up seventh- and ninth-place finishes at California and Las Vegas. He was sitting pretty in fourth place then, and couldn't have predicted the accumulation of inexplicable execution problems. His past five finishes: 20th, 14th, 27th, 25th and 21st.
And now he heads to Talladega Superspeedway -- a track where he has had little success and little on-track help -- to change his fortunes. Mears has two top-10s at Talladega but a much lower 25th-place average finish at the track.
Still, he's feeling up to the challenge this weekend.
"I'm optimistic about going to Talladega, but I'm optimistic about wherever we go now," he said. "I feel like we're capable of winning races, and I think we showed that we can win at the restrictor-plate tracks with our finish in Daytona. We've just got to stay focused, and I think we'll be fine. The past few weeks have been disappointing, so hopefully we can get back to the form we were in at the start of the season."
The way Mears started the season, of course, was with a second-place finish at a superspeedway. Mears cautions against high expectations based solely on his Daytona finish, though. To be sure, he expects to finish high, just not because he did well at Daytona.
"We started the season off right at Daytona with a runner-up finish, and we're headed to Talladega, but those two tracks are a lot more different than people think," he said. "And we're not taking the same car to Talladega. But it sure would be nice to get similar results."
The car Mears is taking to 'Dega is the one Jamie McMurray drove to 12th- and fifth-place finishes in Alabama in 2005. Of course, the Dodge Charger is a little bit different from last year's edition, so crew chief Donnie Wingo and Co. have made alterations. But Mears said he's growing accustomed to the new Dodge Charger and believes it has potential.
"I think, 99.9 percent, the Charger is a good car," he said. "That's why we've stuck with it. We know it has some small weaknesses, but we've just got to keep working with that. We're working on making some changes for next year, but for this year, I think we've found ways to make the Charger work.
"There's a small window to make it work, but when we get it right, it's fast."
It has been a few races since Mears has felt as though he and his team had the No. 42 Dodge working right. In fact, he's surprised he's still among the top 10 after his past five outings. He climbed out of his car disappointed each time and immediately inquired into his standing in the points.
"You realize you're in the top 10 and you see where you're at, but that's not going to help our cause, really," Mears said. "We know what we need to do. We need to click off more of those top-10s and top-fives and have competitive race cars. I think the points will take care of themselves. I know a lot of people say that, but that's the way it is."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.