BUSCH: Indianapolis: Casey Mears - NASCAR spotlight

Mears looks to carry on family racing legacy in Indianapolis, but arrives with a different driving force. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 30, 2002) - Casey Mears has always envisioned carrying on the family legacy in Indianapolis, but he probably...

Mears looks to carry on family racing legacy in Indianapolis, but arrives with a different driving force.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 30, 2002) - Casey Mears has always envisioned carrying on the family legacy in Indianapolis, but he probably could not have visualized the ride that would eventually deliver him to the city where his uncle Rick was legendary.

Mears, whose uncle was a four-time Indy 500 champion, will be looking to carve his own reputation in Indianapolis, and it will come in another major form of racing.

Mears left the world of open-wheel racing this year for a full-time opportunity to grow and flourish in the No. 2 motorsports series in the United States, the NASCAR Busch Series, Grand National Division, and hopefully reach the pinnacle with a future ride in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

Mears (No. 66 Phillips 66 Dodge), a 24-year-old from Bakersfield, Calif. in the midst of his rookie season, has shown the promise and ability in making a successful transition as the NASCAR Busch Series prepares for Saturday's Kroger 200 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

"You can't argue NASCAR's popularity in North America right now," Mears said."The decision I made to join the Busch Series was all about my future. My dad and my uncle did well in Indy cars, but they also raced a lot of other types of cars and I'd like to keep our legacy going in racing period. I've gotten a ton of support from them and they said,' Go do it.' Open-wheel racing will always be in my heart, but it is not in a good state right now and not real secure so I decided to carry our name to the stock-car side of things."

Mears had come through the open-wheel ranks and had exhibited some of the promise and driving talent that his uncle and father Roger, a champion off-road racer who also competed in open-wheel racing, possessed. He finished runner-up in 1999 and third in 2000 in the Indy Lights championship, a top developmental open-wheel series.

He also had an impressive CART career debut in 2000 when Team Rahal gave him an opportunity in an additional third car in the season finale at California Speedway and he delivered a stunning fourth-place finish. Mears had some tests with open-wheel teams in the off-season, but nothing of substance materialized for the young and talented American driver.

"If Indy Lights had been the Busch Series and CART had been Winston Cup and I got the results that I did, I think there would have been a lot of rides out there for me without a doubt," Mears said."For some reason in CART and open-wheel overall, it did not happen - maybe the guys (owners) were just scared to take a chance with young guys."

Last year, however, turned out to be a pivotal turning point in his fortunes and future in racing. Mears attempted to qualify for the Indy 500, hopeful of following in the footsteps of his uncle and father, but he did not qualify for the starting field. During Indy, Penske Racing executive Dan Luginbuhl prodded Mears to talk with Wayne Jesel, who was looking for a driver for his NASCAR Busch Series team.

Mears was initially hesitant, but eventually became intrigued and decided to run an ARCA race at Talladega for Jesel as well as the final three events of the NASCAR Busch Series season. But then CART owner Morris Nunn called for his services when Alex Zanardi lost his legs in a devastating accident during a September race in Germany. Mears ran the final four events of the season with a season-best finish of eighth at California Speedway. He also was able to mix in the ARCA event - he finished ninth - and the season-ending Busch race at Homestead, where he qualified 21st and finished 28th.

"I got the opportunity from Morris to go to a good team, run some races and be competitive," Mears said."It was something I had always dreamed of, but I think that allowed me to get it out of my system and focus on this."

Team Jesel was impressed with his brief audition and signed him to a two-year deal that goes through the 2003 season.

Mears is 21st in the NASCAR Busch Series championship, but has shown flashes throughout the season of his promise as the team adapts to the new Dodge program as well as each other. He finished a season-best fifth at Talladega in April and qualified a season-best second at Nashville in June en route to a 10th-place finish.

"The hard part [about the transition] was not about driving the car fast, it was learning how to tune the car so it was good at the end of the race and learn how hard to drive it so it was still good at the end," Mears said."I'm happy with some of our results, but as a racer I'm not happy until we're running up front every week."

Donnie Richeson, Mears' crew chief, has been impressed with the rookie's talent as well as pleased with the team's progress thus far.

"I think he has showed that and really turned some heads in the garage area," Richeson said."The only thing we've had to work on has been about patience. He was used to cars that could be driven to their limits lap after lap. In a stock car, that is not the case. The slower you run in the beginning, the faster you'll be in the end.

"We're getting better each week and I think it has showed in our qualifying and results. Sure, we should have had some better finishes, but that is part of it. You just wait until we start going to tracks that Casey's been to before. He's a quick learner. That's obvious by the ease at which he's made the transition from open wheel to stock car racing."

Mears has yet to start a race at the venue that made his uncle famous, but it remains in his future plans in more than one aspect. He someday would like to compete at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in both a NASCAR Winston Cup car and an Indy car much like John Andretti, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon have in recent years. Mears, however, would like to take it one step further.

"I'd like to run the Busch race (at Charlotte) Saturday night, and then run Indy and the (Coca-Cola Racing Family) 600 the next day," Mears said."Nobody has ever done that - and it may not be the smartest thing to do - but I'd really like to do it. I'm working on it."

Mears will have to settle for Indianapolis Raceway Park this season, but he still relishes the opportunity to compete in the city that enhanced his family name.

"Indy is a great place and my family has a lot of history there, but it will not be complete for me until I run at the Brickyard someday," Mears said."But Indy is a great place and it brings back a lot of memories going back. It would be a great place for me to get a good result."


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Drivers John Andretti , Tony Stewart , Robby Gordon , Casey Mears , Alex Zanardi , Morris Nunn
Teams Team Penske