Coca-Cola 600

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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Cup Series moves from Coke 600 marathon to sprint

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After enduring NASCAR’s longest race in terms of mileage, a grueling 607.5 miles in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, tonight’s race is so much shorter that drivers may barely break a sweat.

Tonight’s race will have a definite short track feel of sorts: the length is just 310 miles/500 kilometers.

Among the unique aspects about tonight’s race is the top 20 finishers in the 600 will start tonight’s race in inverted order.

That means 600 winner Brad Keselowski and runner-up Chase Elliott will start tonight’s race from the 20th and 19th positions respectively.

Meanwhile, William Byron and teammate Alex Bowman — who finished 20th and 19th respectively in the 600 — will start tonight from the first two positions.

As for the back half of the field, drivers who finished 21-40 in the 600 will start tonight’s race from those same positions.

Stage 1 will end on Lap 55, while Stage 2 ends on Lap 115.

As a result, really the only true similarity between the 600 and tonight is the track upon which the cars will race upon.

Everything is completely different, which will lend itself to more drama and more aggressive race strategy, particularly with more gambling on pit road.

“It’s going to be tough with the invert,” said Martin Truex Jr., who finished sixth in the 600 and will start 15th tonight. “I think that’s going to be a big deal after everybody gets a chance to work on their cars and the track just seemed like it was really one groove and really, really difficult to pass during the 600.

“You give everybody two or three days to work on their cars and everybody is going to be closer yet. The invert is going to be a challenge in the shorter race for sure. We’ll see what we can do with it and do our best.”

Truex’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Erik Jones, finished 11th in the 600 and will start 10th tonight.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to Charlotte for race two,” Jones said. “The 600 was a good race for us most of the night. We were pretty strong and ran up front.

“Hopefully we make some good changes for Wednesday night. It’s a short race, so we aren’t really going to have an opportunity to work on the car as the night goes. We’re going to have what we have when we start and as the race gets going. I’m looking forward to it.”

Teammate Kyle Busch said he and his team “were lucky to steal a fourth-place finish (in the 600) … and we’ll have to go back to work and figure out some things to make our stuff better for when we come back on Wednesday (starts 17th) and get back after it.”

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson looks to rebound from being disqualified following the 600 for failing post-race inspection. He’ll start tonight where he finished Sunday – last in the 40-car field – but believes good fortune is on the horizon.

“We’re knocking on the door and we’ll get there,” Johnson said.

Another driver who had problems and penalties of another sort in and after the 600 but hopes for a similar rebound as Johnson tonight is Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota Camry had a big chunk of tungsten ballast fall out from under his car during parade laps for the 600.

Hamlin’s crew had to replace the lost ballast, costing him an eight-lap delay before he could get his race started, finished 29th and eventually saw NASCAR hand down four-race suspensions for several team members, including crew chief Chris Gabehart.

“Our Toyota was actually pretty fast on Sunday,” Hamlin said, trying to look on the bright side. “We tried various adjustments throughout the night and learned how the car reacts in traffic and in various lines around the track.

“So, we have a good baseline to start with for Wednesday.”

Now it’s just a matter of essentially going from work boots to gym shoes when it comes to running tonight’s shorter length.

“Obviously, you’ve got a shorter distance to accomplish what you need to,” Hamlin said. “Tire and fuel mileage strategy will be different, and we’ll have shorter stages to work within.

“This one will be more of a sprint than a marathon.”

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Brad Keselowski savors Coke 600 win while contemplating future

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Brad Keselowski celebrated his 30th career Cup win with Team Penske early Monday morning by saying “I think I got another 30 left in me. I’d like to have the chance at it.”

Keselowski, who has 31 total Cup wins, is a free agent after this season.

Asked if his victory in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 would give him added value, the former Cup champion said: “I know winning never hurts.

“I wish I had more news, but I don’t. So, yeah, winning is not a bad thing. I hope to continue to compete at a very high level and be able to win races for a long time.”

The 36-year-old Keselowski is in his 11th full-time Cup season with Team Penske. Jimmie Johnson (19th full-time season with Hendrick Motorsports), Denny Hamlin (15th full-time season with Joe Gibbs Racing) and Kyle Busch (13th full-time season with Joe Gibbs Racing) are the only active drivers who have been with the same Cup team longer than Keselowski has been with Team Penske.

Keselowski acknowledged several factors will determine what he’ll do next season.

“It’s not all up to me,”  he said. “A lot of things have to come together, whether it’s sponsors or whatnot, management things. That hasn’t happened yet.”

During his interview with Fox after the race, Keselowski acknowledged sponsor Miller Lite, which has been a significant part of his career but has diminished its role as a primary sponsor in recent years.

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen with them, if they’re gonna come back on the car or what, but it’s been a great 10-year ride with them and this is their only race of 2020 and we’re in victory lane,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski is just part of a robust free agent market.

Much of what happens could center on the No. 48 car at Hendrick Motorsports. This is Jimmie Johnson’s final full-time season, and the team has not announced a replacement. Sponsor Ally Financial is signed as a full-season primary sponsor of the team through the 2023 season, meaning a driver would not need to bring sponsorship with them.

Among the drivers with contracts that expire after this season or have an option for next season that could be declined are Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Bubba Wallace, Corey LaJoie and Ty Dillon. Kyle Larson was a part of his class before Chip Ganassi Racing fired him April 14 for using a racial slur during a sim racing event. Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR.

While there could be opportunities elsewhere, Keselowski said he likes what he has with his new team. Car owner Roger Penske shuffled drivers and crews within his organization before the season. Keselowski was paired with Jeremy Bullins and Bullins’ crew.

Keselowski said he sees the progress his team is making with the Hendrick Motorsports cars that have been fast this season on the bigger tracks.

“They were just a touch better, but we weren’t far off,” Keselowski  said. “I think this is as close or the closest we’ve been to them. But we still have a little bit of work to do. We need to keep iterating, getting faster.

“They seem to be a little faster than what we do in dirty air.  In clean air we’re close to them, maybe even a touch faster.  In dirty air they seem to be just a little bit faster. I think we have a little bit of work to do.

“We can do it. We just have to put our head down and stay focused on it.”

Winners and losers after Coca-Cola 600

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WINNERS

Brad KeselowskiLate caution sent the Coca-Cola 600 into overtime. When Chase Elliott pitted, Brad Keselowski assumed the top spot. Keselowski held off the field to score his first Coca-Cola 600 win. He said he considers five Cup races as crown jewels: Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500, Brickyard 400 and the Bristol night race. He’s won them all but the Daytona 500.

Ryan Blaney His third-place finish was his best result since placing second in the Daytona 500.

Kyle Busch Overcame a speeding penalty to place fourth. It marked his fourth consecutive top-five finish in the Coca-Cola 600 after having only three such finishes in his first 13 starts in the race.

Kevin HarvickHe finished fifth, extending his streak of consecutive top-10 finishes to 12, dating back to last season.

Christopher Bell He scored his first career Cup top-10 finish, placing ninth.

LOSERS

Denny HamlinFaces the next four races without crew chief Chris Gabehart and potentially other team members as a penalty for ballast falling out of his car before the race. Among those races are Bristol (where he won last year’s night race) and Martinsville (where he was fourth in last year’s playoff race).

Jimmie JohnsonRunner-up finish vanished after NASCAR disqualified his car for failing post-race inspection. By finishing last, he will start Wednesday’s race last at Charlotte. The team decided Monday not to appeal the penalty.

Chase Elliott — What a disheartening week for Elliott. He was wrecked while running second late at Darlington. A few days later, he led with the end of the 600 in sight when teammate William Byron spun to bring out a caution. Elliott then gave up the lead to pit. He couldn’t make it back to the lead with fresh tires  and finished second after Jimmie Johnson’s car was disqualified.

Alex BowmanCar’s handling went away late, ruining a night where he won two stages and led 164 laps. The result was a 19th-place finish. On the good side, it puts him on the front row for Wednesday’s race with the top 20 finishers inverted.

NASCAR disqualifies Jimmie Johnson’s car after it fails inspection

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NASCAR announced that Jimmie Johnson‘s car failed inspection after his runner-up finish and he was disqualified.

Jay Fabian, Cup Series managing director, said Johnson’s car failed post-race alignment.

“The failure was rear alignment,” Fabian said. “It’s the same thing we check on at least a handful of cars … after every event.”

The team decided Monday not to appeal the penalty.

Asked about consideration of a broken part, Fabian said: “The allowance is built in for parts that move. There is an allowance for that. If parts break, the number is the number. There is no real parameter outside of that. There have been parts in the past that have been designed to fail or break. Certainly not suggesting that is the case here, but that’s what’s gotten us to this hard line and this is the post-race number and there is a fair tolerance from pre-race numbers to post.”

Johnson is now listed as finishing 40th. He’ll also start there for Wednesday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway with the results from the Coca-Cola 600 setting the starting lineup for that race.