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Where Are They Now? Catching up with Casey Mears

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There are certain days most people never forget: their anniversaries, their children’s birthdays and for race car drivers, their first win.

These days Casey Mears may live 2,100 miles away from Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he was there in spirit for last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600.

Mears won NASCAR’s longest race in 2007. He was in the right place at the right time, taking the lead from Denny Hamlin late in the race and hanging on for the final six laps – the only laps he led all day – for the win.

Casey Mears celebrates after winning the 2007 Coca-Cola 600. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“It was definitely the high point of my career, for sure,” Mears told NBC Sports. “I remember everything about that night.

“The one thing – and it’s not a regret – but it’s unfortunate that it ended up being a fuel-mileage race because we had a very fast car that night and ran inside the top 10 and top five the majority of the night.

“We probably weren’t going to win it, but we had a good shot at a top five and were going to be in the hunt. (Crew chief Darian Grubb) made a great call and we won the race, which was amazing for several different reasons.

“I mean, obviously winning in Charlotte, the 600 is the longest race, winning on Memorial Day weekend, which is a huge week for my family and then also being sponsored by the National Guard at that time. It was just a big night.”

While the 600 was his only Cup win, Mears also recalls several other key moments of his career, including runner-up finishes in 2006 at the Daytona 500 and later that year at Kansas.

“That night at Charlotte was a huge part of my career but some of the stuff that I feel like we earned on speed which was really cool were, we sat on the pole at Indy, did well at places like Chicago, Pocono and Michigan, being competitive and leading laps at places like Atlanta and Homestead, going back and forth with Tony Stewart at Atlanta one year.

“Some of those big moments in my career weren’t necessarily the only parts that stand out. The moments I remember the most were when we had competitive race cars and when we were on the verge of getting those wins and getting real close.”

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Mears lives in the Phoenix area with his family. It’s also where he met his wife, Trisha.

“We always said that when the NASCAR things slowed down, we’d like to be back out this way,” Mears told NBC Sports. “So we picked up and moved the kids and came out to Phoenix. We’re loving it, and I’m really enjoying spending a lot of time with them. I’ve also been fortunate to reconnect with some of my off-road racing buddies since I’ve been out here.”

This is the off-road truck Casey Mears co-drove in last year’s NORRA Mexican Baja 1000. (Photo courtesy Casey Mears)

Mears may be gone from NASCAR, but he’s still taking part in other forms of racing part-time, including off-road competition like the NORRA Mexican Baja 1000 last year with Lynn Chenoweth. Casey’s father Roger drove for Chenoweth back in the 1960s and 1970s, and also is part of Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks Series.

“I also hang out with (NBC IndyCar analyst and former racer Paul Tracy) and drive his Lamborghini sports car, just taking it on the track and sliding around, just having fun,” Mears said. “If opportunities come around, I’d love to race some more.

“I really, really enjoyed racing out in the desert, doing off road stuff. I’d also love to get involved in some sports car stuff as well if there’s an opportunity.

“I love what I’m being able to do right now, just dabble. Playing in Robby’s series, that’s been a blast and picking up random off road, desert opportunities. But racing’s racing, it always boils down to the dollars and cents and sponsors or finding some guy that just wants to go racing and spend some money and have fun. It’s few and far between these days.”

Even though Mears has moved on from NASCAR, he admits he misses it.

“I was fortunate to get to do it for about 15 years,” Mears said. “I lived that life and it really becomes almost the opposite. Your family and friends end up being all the people on the road and people at home become extended friends and family, you’re on the road so much.

“For sure I miss a lot of the people that you saw week in and week out. I definitely miss the competition. I don’t think I’ll ever not miss being in a race car because, like so many others in the sport, I didn’t really get to go out on my own terms.

“For so many people, the sport decides it for you before you’re ready to decide not to do it. I think I’ll always have that desire to want to get in a car again.

“But the one thing that helped me make this decision to move to Phoenix is that I didn’t want to be one of those guys that lingered in the sport either. I didn’t want to be with a back marker program and not be able to be competitive and that’s kind of probably what would have happened. I would have stuck around and would have gotten into something I probably really didn’t need to be in.”

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Mears made 489 career Cup starts, his last full-time season being in 2016. He came back for a start last year for Germain Racing in the season-opening Daytona 500. He started 40th and finished 40th, involved in a crash just past the halfway point.

Mears also made 107 Xfinity Series starts, earning his lone series win in 2016 at Chicagoland Speedway.

He still keeps his hand in NASCAR somewhat, just not on a steering wheel. He does promotional work for Phoenix Raceway and visits his former chums each time NASCAR comes to town.

Casey Mears, right, remains good friends with a number of his former teammates, including seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

He also keeps in regular contact with close friends and former teammates and bosses including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Chip Ganassi, Rick Hendrick, Bob Germain and Doug Barnette.

But moving on from being a race car driver, pretty much the only thing he had known for more than 30 years since being a kid growing up in Bakersfield, California, gave Mears pause.

“This move really forced me to figure out what’s next in life,” he said. “I’m 42 years old and although I’ve done well and been very fortunate, but I need to do something.”

He’s looking at a variety of business opportunities in the Phoenix area, primarily in the automotive industry.

“I feel very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had in the sport,” Mears said. “I drove for a lot of real good teams and programs and learned a lot from a lot of people.

“The people I got to race with and learn from just from the business standpoint is going to help me later in my career with whatever’s next. I had some great opportunities and will always miss it, but at the same time, I’m looking forward to the future and what’s next.”

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Where Are They Now? Catching up with Parnelli Jones

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While he may be known more for his wins in the Indianapolis 500 and the Baja 1000, it was stock car racing that helped Parnelli Jones on the path to become the racing legend he is.

And even during his most successful years in open-wheel and off-road racing, the Torrence, California resident frequently went back to his stock car racing roots.

The first race Jones competed in was a “jalopy race” stock car event at Carrell Speedway in Gardena, California in 1950. He had to lie about his age because 17 was considered a “minor,” which if the truth had come out, would have kept him from racing.

While he struggled early on, Jones’ raw talent eventually turned to great success, earning 15 stock car wins across several West Coast-based series including late models and modifieds over the next few years.

Richard Petty and Parnelli Jones in 2003. (Photo: Jean-Paul Aussenard/WireImage via Getty Images.)

Then, one year after winning the Indianapolis 500, Jones captured the 1964 USAC stock car championship, earning eight wins that season.

Jones went on to make 34 NASCAR Grand National starts, earning four wins, six top-five and 11 top-10 finishes.

He also made an additional 30 starts in the California-based Winston West Series (which now is known as the ARCA Menards Series West), earning four wins, 15 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes. He was inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame in 2001.

“One thing about a stock car is its handling.” Jones told NBC Sports. “It’s a lot tougher to drive, but I adapted well to different kinds of racing. It seemed like once I got in the car, it wasn’t the race so much as it was the car itself. I enjoyed my short span in NASCAR.”

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Jones said the high point of his NASCAR career was his win in the 1967 Motor Trend 500 at Riverside International Raceway. But it was three years later at Riverside, in the final NASCAR race of his career — and while driving for Wood Brothers Racing — that gave Jones great personal satisfaction for a different kind of reason.

Parnelli Jones celebrates his victory in the 1967 Motor Trend 500 at Riverside International Raceway. (Photo by Bob D’Olivo/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images)

“NASCAR took my tires away after qualifying at Riverside,” Jones said. “They told me I couldn’t run the Firestone tires, I had to run Goodyears.”

Then, Jones, no stranger to displaying feistiness in his career, added with a laugh:

“After I set my qualifying (sixth) time, they made me start dead last. I was able to come up through the field to the lead before I made my first pit stop. When I got to the pits, I rolled down the window net and I gave Bill France (Sr.) the ‘one lap sign’ (raised his middle finger).”

Not only did he go from last to first, he dominated the race, leading 88 laps, before the clutch on his Mercury broke with 25 laps to go. A.J. Foyt passed Jones for the lead and held on for the win. Still, Jones finished 11th in the race.

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Health issues in the last year have slowed down the 86-year-old Jones – he missed attending the Indianapolis 500 last year for the first time since 1958 – but he still has a need for speed. He is helping oversee the budding racing career of grandson Jagger Jones, as well as son PJ’s racing and off-road race vehicle manufacturing exploits.

Parnelli is particularly proud of 17-year-old Jagger. The third-generation racer finished second and was rookie of the year last season in the NASCAR ARCA Menards West Series.

“The first toy they get is a race car or something like that, and then they follow their parents. Jagger is no different,” Parnelli said of his grandson. “He’s certainly a very bright kid, very sharp, he adapts well and learns well.

“He’s a very smart kid, has great grades and is at the top all the time. I’m very proud of him. He’s certainly put a great mark on the Jones family.”

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While he spends most of his time in his Southern California home or office, Parnelli still keeps up with a number of racing friends, including legendary drag racer Don “Snake” Prudhomme and NASCAR/IndyCar/IMSA team owner Chip Ganassi.

Drag racing legend Don ‘Snake’ Prudhomme and Jagger Jones, Parnelli Jones’ grandson, raced together in last year’s NORRA Mexican 1000 in Baja, California. The duo plans to again compete together in the race in October. (Photo: Don Prudhomme).

“There was a cop once upon a time who pulled someone over for speeding and said, ‘Who the hell do you think you are, Parnelli Jones?’” Prudhomme said with a laugh. “I heard that saying even before I met Parnelli and once I did meet him, I understood why.

“We never raced against each other, which actually is kind of special because you get to know someone like that outside of racing; we just struck up a great friendship. And then I became real good friends with his son PJ, and I’ve raced in Baja with his grandson Jagger and we’re scheduled to do that again hopefully later this year.

“When I’m sitting next to Jagger in the race car and he has his helmet on, you’d think it’s Parnelli driving. It’s the same thing. He’s a 17-year-old kid and he’s impressed the heck out of me.

“Parnelli also really showed me there was more to living than just racing. He quit at a pretty young age and that always impressed me, like how can you do that? I didn’t think anybody could get out of a car (at that age), but he was going into business and became very successful, which also impressed me.

“He inspired me to try and make a success out of myself outside of just being at the race track. Parnelli is somebody I’ve always looked up to for that.”

Ganassi has been a diehard fan of Jones – and eventually became great friends with – for virtually his entire life. His admiration began when Ganassi was 5 years old and his father bought him an 8mm film of the 1963 Indianapolis 500 that was held just a few months earlier.

Team owner Chip Ganassi has been a lifelong fan and close friends with Parnelli Jones for nearly 40 years. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I played that film on our wall and watched it a thousand times,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “Then, several years later, I finally make it to the Indy 500 as a driver (1981 at the age of 23) and I meet Parnelli. I told him the story about how my dad had bought that film for me and how I watched it.

“I’ve become real good friends with him. I remember five years ago, I even had Thanksgiving dinner with him, his wife, his son PJ and his wife and their sons.

“The thing about Parnelli is he’s still current. He may not be the physical specimen he once was, but his mind, he’s got a lot of race craft in him still. He knows what’s going on in racing.

“Not only was he my first-ever hero, he was also the first name I ever knew in racing. There’s no question how much he’s inspired me in my life.”

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Jones enjoyed success in virtually every form of motorsport he participated in, be it NASCAR, open-wheel, sprint cars, off-road and more. Someone even once said Jones would be competitive and win races even if he drove a forklift.

When asked what one word best described him and his desire to succeed in any form of racing he took part in, Jones chuckled with his response: “Impatience.”

LeeRoy Yarbrough (middle) and Parnelli Jones (right) talk before Jones’ final NASCAR  race in 1970 at Riverside. (Photo by The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images)

“That’s when you have racing in your blood and enjoyed driving all kinds of different cars as well,” Jones said. “Once I accomplished one series or something like that, I would want to see what’s out afield and I liked jumping around doing different types of racing.

“It was fun and I was having a great time doing that and I was fortunate enough not to get hurt.”

But the faster he went, the level of risk and danger increased, prompting Parnelli to scale back his time behind the wheel by his mid-30s.

His last Indianapolis 500 was in 1967 at the age of 33 (finished sixth), and his last NASCAR race was in 1970 at the age of 36 (11th at Riverside).

“I was fortunate enough not to be injured and then started backing down from my racing,” Jones said. “I’d been very lucky and fortunate in a time where I’d won sprint car championships and Indy and the cars back then were very, very dangerous. I didn’t want to push my luck, plus I wanted to start a family.”

Jones would go on to have a very successful business career, building a corporate empire that included nearly 50 retail tire stores in the West, a wholesale business that sold automotive parts and supplies to countless dealerships across the country, and designed and sold wheels for car owners who wanted to customize their rides.

He also became a successful race team owner, winning back-to-back Indy 500 titles in 1970 and 1971 and three straight USAC championships from 1970-1972.

But once a racer, always a racer: Jones unretired briefly in 1993 at the age of 60 to take part in Fast Masters, a made-for-TV event that featured 50 retired drivers from various forms of motorsports, including NASCAR luminaries Bobby and Donnie Allison, Buddy Baker, Harry Gant, Benny Parsons, David Pearson and Dick Trickle.

In the six Fast Masters races, Jones competed just three times but won once, finished runner-up a second time and his lowest finish was just sixth (in the championship finale). He also earned one pole and never qualified lower than third in the three events he entered.

Jones was ultra-competitive throughout his racing and business career, but for as good of a race car driver that he was, he’s an even better person overall according to those who know him well.

“We’re pals,” Prudhomme said. “And if you’re pals with Parnelli Jones, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

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Editor’s note: We will have another story on Jones’ success in other race series, particularly Indy car and off-road racing, on NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk later this month. 

Matt Kenseth to drive No. 42 for Chip Ganassi Racing

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Matt Kenseth is coming back to drive the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing for the rest of the 2020 season, the team confirmed Monday.

“I have always said that when we have to fill a driver spot, that I owe it to our team, our partners and our fans to put the best available driver in the car. We are doing exactly that with Matt,” car owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “Throughout my time in NASCAR, I have always admired the way Matt Kenseth raced. He has proven to be a consistent winner, strong competitor, and respectful driver, and I’m glad we are able to add another NASCAR champion to the team for the remainder of this season.”

Said Kenseth in a statement: This was an unexpected opportunity for sure. I can’t say racing was even on my radar two weeks ago. After spending some time thinking about it and all the unique circumstances surrounding all of us right now, it just seemed the timing and the opportunity was perfect to come back. I know I have a lot of work ahead of me to get up to speed in a relatively short period of time, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I’m excited to work with Kurt (Busch) again and to meet all my new CGR team members, and I’m really looking forward to getting back in a Chevrolet. In 1988, I started my career in a Camaro and I can’t wait to finally race a Chevy in the Cup Series. I also need to thank Chip and all his partners for this opportunity. Hopefully we will be on the track soon.”

MORE: Matt Kenseth discusses his surprising return

MORE: Highlights of Matt Kenseth’s NASCAR career

Kenseth last competed in Cup in 2018, running a partial schedule for Roush Fenway Racing. His last full-time Cup season was 2017 for Joe Gibbs Racing. His last Cup win was in the penultimate race in 2017 at Phoenix Raceway.

The 48-year-old former Cup champion has 39 career series wins, including two Daytona 500 triumphs, along with his 2003 series title.

He replaces Kyle Larson, who was fired April 14 by the team for uttering a racial slur during an iRacing event.

NASCAR is looking at May 17 at Darlington Raceway as the return for the Cup Series since the season was suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Kenseth would need a waiver from NASCAR to be eligible for the playoffs since he did not compete in the first four races.

“That’s something we’ve got to talk about (with NASCAR),” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “We’re going to meet with them quickly here.”

Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson discuss Auto Club incident

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Kyle Larson said he knew Denny Hamlin didn’t intentionally wreck him in last weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway and was appreciative of car owner Chip Ganassi’s defense on social media.

Hamlin and Larson were both on the Barstool Sports podcast “Rubbin is Racing” with Dave Portnoy and Clint Bowyer. The podcast was released Thursday morning.

Portnoy talked to Hamlin and Larson about their incident on the track at Auto Club Speedway, Hamlin’s social media video later that night of running into the back of Larson with a shopping cart and Chip Ganassi’s response on Twitter, calling Hamlin’s video #badtaste.

Hamlin explained on the Barstool Sports podcast his contact that caused Larson to hit the wall early in the race.

He knows that I’m not trying to do it intentionally,” Hamlin said of Larson. “He knows that I’m trying to help him. I just screwed up while I was trying to help him.”

Said Larson on the podcast: “Obviously, I also knew that it wasn’t on purpose, the wreck anyways. I was mad. I got put into the fence and my day was done, and I had to ride around way off the pace for two-and-a-half hours, so that wasn’t fun.

“We talked after the race. Like I said, I knew it wasn’t on purpose. I spent all race already being mad. I knew we were going to hang out all week in Phoenix, so why keep things awkward or make them more awkward than they should be? We race 38 weekends together a year. (Expletive) is going to happen every now and then.

“I think stuff that happens on the racetrack shouldn’t get in the middle of what you guys do off the racetrack, especially if it is not on purpose. It is what it is. I support Chip having my back. I think that is pretty cool. Like I said it wasn’t on purpose. At least I can get (Hamlin) back maybe someday and have an excuse.”

Bowyer then asked Larson if he thought about wrecking Hamlin after the incident.

“I did joke,” Larson said on the podcast chuckling, “I joked with him after the race, I said ‘Crazy how much stuff will run through your mind in a split second.’ I was ready …

Bowyer added: “You had such a good opportunity.”

Larson continued: “I was going to put him in the fence and then I’m like it’s a long drive to Scottsdale, I’m supposed to fly with him, I want to golf at all these nice courses this week, so I ended up not turning him into the fence, which I’m glad I didn’t.

“Yeah, because that would have hurt,” Hamlin interjected.

Larson continued: “Even if we didn’t have plans this week, we’re hauling ass into (Turn) 1 and he’s already broke his back once there, I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

Hamlin suffered a fractured L1 vertebra in a last-lap crash in 2013 at Auto Club Speedway.

As for the video, which has been viewed more than 450,000 times on Twitter, Hamlin said: “From my standpoint, we were just trying to make light of a bad situation and that was probably it. I understand Chip’s point of view, but I also think that saying bad taste, I don’t know, I was just tying to make a joke. Evidently 10,000 people that liked it thought it was funny too.”

Hamlin said Larson had no idea what Hamlin was going to do in the video.

“He didn’t see it coming,” Hamlin said on the podcast. “He didn’t see it coming. Ricky Stenhouse is there pushing the second cart and we were going down the aisle because we were grocery shopping for the house we’re at and I said, ‘Ricky get your camera out and give me that cart.’

Said Larson: “I could see them scheming something and they were kind of whispering to each other away from me, so I thought it was about me, but I didn’t know what was going on.”

NASCAR America’s MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET: Harrison Burton, Greg Ives

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Today’s episode of MotorMouth airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Marty Snider hosts and is joined by Kyle Petty, Steve Letarte and Nate Ryan.

Harrison Burton, the newest winner in the Xfinity Series, will join the show via FaceTime. Greg Ives, crew chief for Alex Bowman, speaks with Dave Burns. We’ll also discuss Chip Ganassi expressing his displeasure with a video Denny Hamlin posted on social media after his incident with Kyle Larson on Sunday.

You can call into the show via 844-NASCAR-NBC or submit your questions/comments via Twitter using #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.