CASEY MEARS (No. 41 Target Dodge) NOTE: Mears, a 25-year-old sophomore NASCAR NEXTEL Cup driver, scored his first top-10 finish Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in his 39th big-league start for Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates Racing.
CASEY MEARS (No. 41 Target Dodge)
NOTE: Mears, a 25-year-old sophomore NASCAR NEXTEL Cup driver, scored his first top-10 finish Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in his 39th big-league start for Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates Racing. His seventh-place finish pushed the Bakersville, Calif., native to 10th in the series standings.
DISCUSS YOUR VEGAS RACE AND OUTLOOK FOR ATLANTA
"It was a lot of fun having everything come together. We worked real hard during the off season and made some changes to the mechanical side of our cars and also made some improvements to the motors. I think my relationship with Jimmy Elledge (crew chief) has continually gotten better. It was awesome to be running up front with those guys, and that's what we came here to do. To struggle like we did last year made it tough. To get off to a good start like we have this year and to be in the top 10 in points and showing how competitive we are in every race this year is really exciting.
"We had a great car at the fall race last year in Atlanta. The car was awesome. I jumped the initial start and got a black flag. It happened as the caution flag came out, so we didn't lose a lap. We were coming up through the field on Sunday, and after it rained, the car didn't take to the track on Monday like it had on Sunday and we struggled. I think the way we ran at Charlotte before we blew a motor there and later at Atlanta before it rained, I really feel good about going back there, especially with the improvements we've got within the team. I don't see why we can't be strong everywhere this year."
IS YOUR JOB ON THE LINE?
"I think it's kind of a given, isn't it? In this kind of motorsports and motorsports in general, you've got to perform. If you're not putting the numbers on the board and you're not running well, you're not going to get that next job, and you're not going to keep the one you've got because somebody below you wants it real bad, too. It's always a pressing situation and always kind of that feeling in the back of your mind regardless of whether you're doing bad or you're doing well. You always have to perform. I think having the season we had last year, definitely this season is very important, probably more so than last year for sure on performing and doing well. Chip is a guy that likes to win races and run up front, and he gives us everything he can for us to go do that. For sure, there was some pressure to do well this year, but I'm not trying any harder this year than I was last year. I've learned so much now. I think the team has improved all the way around from the motor program to the chassis, even aerodynamically. We've just improved all the way around. I think the continuity of the whole team, myself and Jamie and Sterling is there along with my crew chief Jimmy Elledge. Our relationship has improved during the off season. Everything is just starting to come together. I think last year, jumping in the Cup Series as soon as I did, we struggled and rightfully so looking back on it now and knowing what I've learned. To answer the question, yeah. There is some pressure to pAberform this year, but I don't really put any more pressure on myself than I would every year because at the end of the day, I want to win races and I want to run good. Whatever everybody else thinks doesn't get to me, too much."
DO YOU EVER THINK ABOUT RUNNING OPEN WHEEL?
"Absolutely, I'd love to run the Indy 500 some day. I miss open wheel a little bit, but I've got to tell you. I'm so happy with where I am. In the past, the last couple of years, I was trying to convince myself of that. This year, I'm really happy. I'm really pleased with where I'm at right now as far as the team I'm with and what's going on. I'm really happy with stock car racing in general and NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. I'm in a good place right now, and I'm happy with what I'm doing. I'm having a blast during the races. There's always someone to race with whether you're running 40th or in the top five. There's always someone to battle with. This form of motorsports, I'm definitely happy that I got an opportunity to come in this direction."
WAS THERE A POINT WHEN THE LIGHT CAME ON?
"I think it's hard to say exactly when that turning point was. I think the big thing was we had some hit and miss races last year. Watkins Glen was one of those races for sure when the light came on a little bit and 'hey, we can race with these guys.' There were some times last year, even at the beginning of the year, we qualified well at the first Darlington and drove all the way up to sixth. There were some flashes throughout the year when we said if we could just get some things right we were going to be good. I think halfway through last year we dug ourselves such a hole in the points and there didn't seem to be much light at the end of the tunnel. Even if we started to do stellar from there on out, there wasn't going to be much improvement as far as the standings go. Things got stale within the team because a lot of the guys we had were around through Leffler and Spencer and through last year with our struggle. When the biggest light came on was during the off season when we had a chance to reflect on last year and think about everything I learned and the team stepping up and improvement everywhere in all aspects. That part came on this season. I felt good. I felt really good about coming in to this year. I felt like last year I was ready to go. Looking back on it, I had so much to learn and still do. I would say just having the off season to look back and reflect on last season was pretty much where the light came on."
TALK ABOUT APPREHENSION ALL ROOKIES EXPERIENCE
"I think as a rookie you want to establish two things. You want to establish yourself in the sport, and you want to establish you're competitive and a force to be reckoned with. At the same time, as a rookie, you don't want to ruffle any feathers. You don't want to get any of these guys on your bad side right off the bat. You want to come in gracefully, but competitive, and that's hard to do. To be competitive, sometimes you've got to rough some guys up a little bit and rough hard. Trying to find that balance is tough. Just trying to learn everything was tough, and I think it was more tough looking back on last year. Having only that one year in Busch, and a mediocre year at that, I was very, very raw. There were some rookies there last year, but I was probably the rawest of all of them. It was very tough. There was a lot to learn. I think the toughest thing was balancing that, my hunger to want to do well and also give the veterans the respect they deserve and at the same time trying to earn that respect was definitely a tough combination."
DO YOU GO INTO ATLANTA WITH A DIFFERENT ATTITUDE?
"Absolutely, I think any time you improve, for me, having a good run at Vegas wasn't like Matt Kenseth having a good run at Vegas. He's had good runs before. The last couple of races have been big confidence boosters. At Rockingham, we had a top-10 car easy. We had a very competitive car there. We had some bad luck in the pits. We got trapped in the pits once, got blocked in by the pits in front of us, and we short pitted and got a lap down. To come out with a good finish, a good solid day, no real bad luck, was important to us. It gets us excited about Atlanta for two reasons. It's a confidence builder and we know our cars are good and we're competitive. It definitely helps."
HAVE YOU HAD A BEST MOMENT IN RACING YET?
"I've had a couple of them. I think the first one that I kinda held on to was my first champ car race with Bobby Rahal. We came out of the gate at California Speedway and qualified fairly well and finished fourth. That was a career highlight for me there for awhile. I'd have to say now my best finish last weekend was a career highlight for me, but it's something I want to improve on. Getting inside that top 10 was a goal for me. We've done that now, so we've got to get in the top five and start searching for wins."
DID YOU NEED TO SHAKE THE MENTALITY OF FEELING LIKE YOU'RE THE THIRD CAR ON A THREE-CAR TEAM? "A little bit. I think on our team there's a huge emphasis on the fact that there is no one, two and three team. There really isn't. All parts are built in the same place for the cars, and everybody is getting the same equipment. Although we had some very talented guys on the team last year, more than talented. I probably had about three or four crew chiefs working on my car last year, but they had been through some tough years. I think a couple of guys that stuck around for this year and we got a lot of new guys. Our pit crew is trying to get in synch with each other, but one thing I think that's done, having said those guys were great last year, the mentality of the guys this year and overall attitude is really positive. For everybody it's kind of a new, fresh start. The guys that have come in are hungry and want to win and have a lot of confidence in our program. That's been a big part of the turnaround, too. Just having those guys support and seeing that they are behind me is a big deal."
DOES A PART OF YOU REMAIN IN OPEN WHEEL?
"Part of the decision coming here was I had a chance to run Busch in 2002. At the time, it was still a big concern if CART or IRL was going to be the premiere series of open wheel. I had an opportunity to go to both. I talked to my uncle Rick at the time and it was just before Penske was getting ready to go to the IRL. I talked to Rick and my dad (Roger Mears) both and told them I might have an opportunity to try the stock car thing out. They were both, my dad was already back here working for Ganassi at the time, and Rick was in the middle of all those decisions that Penske was about to make as far as going to the IRL, so he said go now and try it. If things don't work you can always come back, so that's what I did. I had made up my mind that I was going to do it, but to have their encouragement made me go that much further into purposing it. I couldn't be happier now. Obviously, the NEXTEL Cup Series is the premiere series in the United States. The racing is awesome, and you get to race every weekend. I'm very happy with where I am now. There's still a part of me in open wheel. My heart's in open wheel to some extent, but I'd say a bigger piece of my heart is over here now. I have those goals of running the Indy 500. My dad and uncle have both run there, and Rick won it four times. That was a huge part of me growing up. We'd gather around in the month of May and watch practice and qualifying. I still get goose bumps to this day when I watch my uncle win one of those races. It's something I want to feel. It's something I'm going to make happen at some point."
HOW HUGE A SIGH OF RELIEF DID YOU RELEASE WHEN YOU CROSSED THE LINE SEVENTH AT VEGAS? "It was huge. It was really big. I don't think I could tell you how big. I think when I got probably a quarter of a way into that race and realized what a good racecar we had and how well we got to the front, every caution I was thinking to myself. "Come on. Please, no bad luck. Let me get through this race and finish where we deserve to finish.' Obviously seventh isn't a win and I'm not as excited as if I were to win, but it's darn close. Having the struggles we had last year and to come out with a top 10 is a huge sigh of relief and definitely a great feeling."
ARE YOU SURPRISED HOW WELL KASEY KAHNE IS RUNNING?
"I don't think so. I know Kasey pretty well. He had a couple of years of Busch under his belt, which was the right thing to do. We used to watch him when he was running the sprint cars and midgets, and he's a talented racecar driver. He's with a first-class organization. He stepped into something that Bill Elliott had been in a lot of years and helped develop. It's a great program, and he's a talented racecar driver. I'm really not that surprised. I think this year is that kind of year for me now. I've got a couple of years under my belt, and we're ready to go racing. As far as Kasey Kahne goes, I'm not surprised at all. I think he's an excellent racecar driver and always has been. He finally got in a good position to show that."
HOW MUCH BUSCH RACING DID YOU DO LAST YEAR? "It's funny because I haven't really sat down and counted the races. I would say I did somewhere between 12 and 15 races last year, along with those four ARCA races we did, and that was huge. It was a great experience, but at the same time, having so much thrown at me last year between Cup and Busch, it didn't distract me but maybe it didn't give time for things to settle in and understand what I'd learned. The off season gave me that time to reflect on things. At the end of the day, it was a huge positive to run those Busch races. I wouldn't want to do it any other way. It was a huge positive, but in another way it was maybe a little bit of a distraction -- not from racing but from getting that little bit of time to reflect on what I'd learned and how to apply it, but it was a great experience and I'd love to run more this year if I can."
WHAT KIND OF CONVERSATIONS HAVE YOU HAD WITH CHIP GANASSI?
"Chip has always been great. He's been supportive. We sat down and talked before I signed the deal, and one of the big things with Chip was I told him I really needed two years. I knew it was going to take time to learn, and he gave me his word that he was going to give me two years. He's lived up to it, and here we are running good this year. We're seeing the fruits of those bad times and that bad season last year (pay off). After the race, he was just ecstatic, along with the rest of us. He made a decision and stuck to it, and it's starting to pay off. That's big. Yesterday we talked. He called me on the phone and told me what a good job I did and to keep on with it. He's been really positive and supportive. Last year, I got a lot of support from my family and the guys on the team. We've had signs of brightness. We all knew if we could just get the pieces of the puzzle together that we were going to be fast. It really kept me going. We had a tough year last year, and it was easy to get down on yourself. Jimmy has a saying. We can worry about what happened last weekend until Monday and then we've got to start thinking about the weekend coming up. That's sort of a good philosophy and a good way of thinking about things."
TALK ABOUT THE DODGES AT ATLANTA
"I think they're going to do great. Sterling tested there and I know they struggled, but they felt good by the end of the test. Hearing about Kasey Kahne running real well is encouraging. I think Dodge has done an excellent job sticking behind their program and giving the teams what they need to do things right. Dodge is probably one of the most supportive manufacturers on the circuit right now. They get behind you and I know they've done that with our team and a lot of other teams as well. That's been a big part of our success."
WHY WILL THIS BE A SPECIAL WEEKEND FOR YOU?
"I forgot about that. Friday is my birthday. I'm going to be 26 on March 12th, so Friday would be a good day to sit on the pole. That would be a good birthday present for sure."
HOW MUCH KARTING IS IN YOUR BACKGROUND?
"I actually raced only one full season in karting. I really enjoyed it, and I thought that was one of the best places to hone your skill to become a good racecar driver. Towards the end of that first year, I got a chance to go race in the Mickey Thompson off road series. It was televised, and it allowed me to travel with my dad and go to a lot of races with him, so I ended up going that direction. At the end of the day, I wish I could have got a couple more seasons of karting under my belt because it was such a good place to learn. I feel very strong that that's a good place to start."
TALK ABOUT THE WEST COAST CONNECTION
"Brendan (Gaughan) and I were actually teammates in the Mickey Thompson off road series in the second or third year I ran. That was the first racing he did. It's funny to imagine we're here in the same spot now. Another guy is Kevin Harvick who grew up in the same town I did. I saw him off and on. He was older than me and I didn't hang out with him a lot on the personal level, but I saw him at the go-kart track a lot and hung out with him there. Jimmie Johnson came a little later. I consider him one of my closest friends. Looking back on it, me, Jimmie, Brendan and Kevin were all racing off road. I knew Robby Gordon for a long time growing up in off road. To think we'd all be in NEXTEL Cup now is just unbelievable really."