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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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Bump & Run: Recounting most memorable Cup races

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What are the two or three most memorable NASCAR races you attended?

Nate Ryan: June 21, 1997, California Speedway: New NASCAR sensation Jeff Gordon christens Roger Penske’s new racing palace with a victory in its inaugural race weekend that also was the first Cup experience for many in attendance (including this writer). July 7, 2001, Daytona International Speedway: In one of the most feel-good moments in NASCAR history, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the first Cup race held at the track since his father’s death there five months earlier. Aug. 7, 2005, Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Tony Stewart finally breaks through at the hometown track that tormented him for a decade, climbing the fence after a Brickyard victory that became the signature moment of his second championship season. 

Dustin Long: The inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indy in 1994 with that massive crowd, Dale Earnhardt trying to lead that opening lap, the Bodine brothers brouhaha and Jeff Gordon winning it. The October 2000 Talladega race that Earnhardt rallied from 18th with five laps left to win. July 2001 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first Cup race at Daytona after his father’s death.

Daniel McFadin: My first NASCAR race ever in 1997 with the inaugural Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway when I was 6. Flash forward to 2011 for my first race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I witnessed Paul Menard‘s surprise Brickyard 400 win over Jeff Gordon. But as an adult, the most exciting race I’ve ever attended was last year’s inaugural Cup event on the Charlotte Roval. The final lap is one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen and probably will see in the near future.

Jerry Bonkowski: The 1988 Checker 500 at the then-Phoenix International Raceway. It was Alan Kulwicki’s first career Winston Cup win and he celebrated by performing the first-ever “Polish Victory Lap,” where he drove in the opposite direction around the 1-mile track before going on to victory lane. The 1994 Brickyard 400. It was near-magical with a sellout crowd watching the first time NASCAR had ever raced upon the greatest racetrack in the world. The 2011 Ford 400. Tony Stewart won the race and captured his third career NASCAR Cup championship. But after the race was the most surreal setting I’ve ever seen in racing. As Stewart celebrated his win, it was also announced that crew chief Darian Grubb was being fired. It was such an awkward scene, but to Grubb’s credit, he handled it like the true pro he is, answering all questions — even the ones that involved his firing.

 

Talladega, Dover, Kansas, All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 are the next five Cup events. What will you be watching for in this next stretch?

Nate Ryan: Whether the Gibbs-Penske stranglehold is broken.

Dustin Long: What team or teams can get to victory lane that don’t run for Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. Can Kyle Larson shake his poor start and be a factor? Also will be curious to see how the package fares in these races, particularly the 1.5-mile tracks. 

Daniel McFadin: I’m interested to see how the rules package performs at Charlotte a year after its early draft was introduced in the All-Star Race. This package was introduced to improve competition on 1.5-mile tracks, with Charlotte being one of the main culprits. The All-Star Race and the Coke 600 will be the most significant tests for the package yet for me.

Jerry Bonkowski: Whether teams that have struggled or haven’t enjoyed better overall success in the first quarter of the season start to rebound. Will we see upward movement in the standings and better performance from guys like Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Daniel Hemric, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman and others? To me, the key race will be the 600. If teams that have struggled up to now don’t start turning things around by the Memorial Day weekend race, will their seasons essentially be lost by then?

 

Talladega is Dash 4 Cash race in the Xfinity Series. Drivers earning Cup points are barred from competing in 12 of 33 Xfinity races (Dash 4 Cash races and final eight races of the year). Is that enough?

Nate Ryan: Too many. Would prefer to see the trend toward restricting lower-level starts be reversed. 

Dustin Long: Don’t need to further bar drivers scoring Cup points from any other Xfinity races.

Daniel McFadin: I’m for limiting Cup drivers as much as possible in Xfinity, but the 12 races overall is reasonable given the significance of those races. Only alteration I’d propose: Outside those races, Cup drivers with more than five years of experience can’t compete in consecutive races.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given that Cup regulars with more than five years of full-time experience in the series are even more restricted — to just seven starts per season in the Xfinity Series — yes, I feel that’s enough. Cup drivers doing any more than seven Xfinity starts — not including Cup regulars with less than five years of full-time Cup experience — would water down the chance for the Xfinity regulars to shine on their own.

 

Darian Grubb prepared William Byron well for next big step with Chad Knaus

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Like the commercials from a famous insurance company, Darian Grubb left William Byron in good hands.

As crew chief, Grubb shepherded Byron through his rookie season in Cup in 2018. Now Byron will go forward with seven-time Cup championship crew chief Chad Knaus.

Byron had a difficult rookie campaign at times, yet he still captured Rookie of the Year honors. He earned four top-10s, with a season-best showing of sixth in the second Pocono race. He had an average start per race of 17.7 and an average finish of 22.1.

In addition, Byron recorded nine DNFs, including seven crashes and two engine failures.

Still, Grubb – who has shifted this season to a technical director role at Hendrick Motorsports – sees a lot of upside that came from Byron’s first season.

Darian Grubb was William Byron’s crew chief last season. Grubb has turned over the reins to Chad Knaus for 2019. (Getty Images)

“He still has a lot of up potential but he learned a lot last year, just learning how to set his expectations and learning how competitive the Cup series is vs. the other series he had been in,” Grubb said earlier this week at a Hendrick media session.

“You have to take those small wins,” Grubb added. “If you have a 15th-place car, if you can finish 10th with it, that’s a good day. It’s a long season, much more grinding than the other series, so you have to have those positives to take.

“It’s not just going to be about a win all the time. You can see him really progress through that through the season. He got a much more of a broad perspective of what Cup racing is all about.”

Prior to moving to Cup, Byron enjoyed significant success, including winning the 2015 K&N Pro Series East championship, barely missed a bid for the Truck Series title in 2016 (he finished fifth), and then rebounded to win the Xfinity Series championship in 2017.

In a way, it was good for Byron to have struggles and learn lessons in 2018 in his first season in Cup that will likely go a long way toward making him a better driver  in 2019 and beyond, Grubb said.

“You have to go through all those trials and tribulations of coming home and having to be happy with a 21st because you had a crashed race car,” Grubb said. “You’re not going to be a winner, you’re not going to be top five, but we finished 21st instead of 32nd.

“Those are the type of things, you take a positive out of it. You can’t just come in and say we should have finished top 10. Yes, we were able to make the best out of what we had leftover because the whole season result rides on that.”

As he enters his sophomore season in Cup racing, Byron may not be the next Jimmie Johnson, but he certainly will receive much of the same knowledge and wisdom Knaus imparted upon Johnson in their 17-year tenure together, particularly their first several seasons as they laid the foundation for five consecutive Cup championships in a row (2006 through 2010) and a record-tying seven titles overall.

Grubb pointed particularly to the communication and how it will develop and improve in time between the two.

“Just look at what (Byron) learned last year about the Cup Series period and now leaning on Chad and developing that communication skill set with him,” Grubb said. “Chad has known only one style of communication for one time and William is kind of new at that, as well.

“That’s what we worked on a lot last year. So as he develops that communication with Chad, I think it is going to determine how well they perform right off the bat. I think they’ve got a lot of up potential.

“I think you’re going to see them grow and learn very quickly. He’s a great kid, he’s going to be a quick learner and he’s going to study really hard. He did that a lot last year and I think you’re going to see a lot of growth quickly.”

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Silly Season sees third rookie join Cup ranks in 2019

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Front Row Motorsports’ announcement that it will expand to three cars and add Matt Tifft increases the rookie field for the 2019 Cup season.

Tifft will be in a Cup rookie class with Ryan Preece and Daniel Hemric. That’s already larger than last season’s rookie class, which featured only William Byron and Bubba Wallace (Byron won rookie of the year honors).

Tifft’s signing is just one of many changes that will take place for the 2019 season.

Here’s a look at where things stand in Silly Season:

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2019

No. 6: Ryan Newman joins Roush Fenway Racing for next season (announcement made Sept. 22)

No. 13: Ty Dillon said he will remain at Germain Racing for the 2019 season (announcement made Sept. 24)

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn move to Joe Gibbs Racing from the defunct Furniture Row Racing team (announcement made Nov. 7)

No. 31: Daniel Hemric replaces Ryan Newman at Richard Childress Racing for 2019. (announcement made Sept. 28)

No. 36: Matt Tifft joins Front Row Motorsports in a third car for the 2019 season (announcement made Nov. 27)

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will remain with Richard Petty Motorsports through the 2020 season (announcement made July 28)

No. 47: Ryan Preece replaces AJ Allmendinger at JTG Daugherty Racing beginning next season (announcement made Sept. 28)

No. 95: Matt DiBenedetto moves to Leavine Family Racing for 2019. Leavine Family Racing also switches to Toyota beginning next year (announcement made Oct. 10)

CUP RIDES NOT YET ANNOUNCED FOR 2019

No. 1: Jamie McMurray will not drive this car next season. He has yet to decide if he will drive for Chip Ganassi Racing in the 2019 Daytona 500 and then move to a management position with the team. He said Nov. 16 he had yet to decide if to do that or some other racing.

No. 32: Go Fas Racing is looking for a driver after Matt DiBenedetto announced Sept. 7 that he would not return to the team after this season.

No. 41: Kurt Busch‘s one-year deal with Stewart-Haas Racing ended after the season. Reports have him headed to the No. 1 car in 2019. 

DRIVERS WITHOUT ANNOUNCED PLANS FOR 2019

AJ Allmendinger: He told NBC Sports on Nov. 17 that he didn’t have any races for 2019 lined up at the time.

Trevor Bayne: 2011 Daytona 500 winner is looking for a ride after the Sept. 12 announcement that he won’t return to Roush Fenway Racing in 2019. He told NBC Sports on Sept. 14 that he has been calling car owners looking for a ride and would look at any of NASCAR’s top three national series. 

Kurt Busch: The 2004 Cup champion has yet to announce his 2019 plans.

Jamie McMurray: Has yet to announce what he’ll do in 2019 but it won’t be a full-time ride in the No. 1 car at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Daniel Suarez: With Martin Truex Jr. taking over the No. 19 in 2019, Suarez is looking for a ride. He said Sept. 21 that “we’re talking to a lot of people.” Suarez is the favorite for the No. 41 ride.

CREW CHIEF CHANGES

No. 3: Danny Stockman replaces Justin Alexander as Austin Dillon‘s crew chief in 2019 (move confirmed Nov. 26)

No. 11: Mike Wheeler will not return as Denny Hamlin‘s crew chief for 2019 (announcement made Nov. 16)

No. 24: Chad Knaus replaces Darian Grubb as William Byron’s crew chief in 2019 (announcement made Oct. 10)

No. 48: Kevin Meendering replaces Chad Knaus as Jimmie Johnson‘s crew chief in 2019 (announcement made Oct. 10)

No. 95: Mike Wheeler joins the team and replaces Jon Leonard, who moved back to Richard Childress Racing to be an engineer on Austin Dillon’s team.

XFINITY SERIES

ANNOUNCED CHANGES FOR 2019

No. 1: Noah Gragson replaces Elliott Sadler at JR Motorsports for 2019 season (announcement made Sept. 25).

No. 42: Chip Ganassi Racing signs Ross Chastain to drive the No. 42 full-time for 2019 (announcement made Nov. 9).

No. 98: Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to drive the team’s second Xfinity car and be a teammate to Cole Custer (announcement made Nov. 27).

RCR: Tyler Reddick moves from JR Motorsports to RCR for the 2019 season. Reddick’s car number, sponsor and crew chief will be announced later. (announcement made Oct. 31).

Silly Season includes crew chief moves at Hendrick Motorsports

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Matt DiBenedetto, whose career has often been overshadowed, got to bask in the attention surrounding his 2019 ride at Leavine Family Racing for a couple of hours Wednesday.

Then Hendrick Motorsports shook the sport by announcing it was splitting Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus – one of NASCAR’s greatest driver/crew chief combinations – after this season.

That just added to a Cup Silly Season that has already seen four drivers announce new rides for next year – and more to come with future announcements for Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez and Kurt Busch, among others.

Here’s a look at where things stand in Silly Season:

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2019

No. 6: Ryan Newman joins Roush Fenway Racing for next season (announcement made Sept. 22)

No. 13: Ty Dillon said he will remain at Germain Racing for the 2019 season (announcement made Sept. 24)

No. 31: Daniel Hemric replaces Ryan Newman at Richard Childress Racing beginning next season (announcement made Sept. 28)

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will remain with Richard Petty Motorsports through the 2020 season (announcement made July 28)

No. 47: Ryan Preece replaces AJ Allmendinger at JTG Daugherty Racing beginning next season (announcement made Sept. 28)

No. 95: Matt DiBenedetto moves to Leavine Family Racing for 2019. Leavine Family Racing also switches to Toyota beginning next year (announcement made Oct. 10)

CUP RIDES NOT YET ANNOUNCED FOR 2019

No. 1: The Associated Press reported Sept. 10 that car owner Chip Ganassi had offered Jamie McMurray a contract to drive in the 2019 Daytona 500 and then move into a management position. Ganassi was awaiting McMurray’s decision. The move means the No. 1 will be open for 2019.

No. 23: Front Row Motorsports purchased the BK Racing team in bankruptcy court in August. Front Row needs the team to run the rest of the season to maintain the charter. After this season, Front Row could run a third car, lease this charter or sell this charter.

No. 32: Go Fas Racing is looking for a driver after Matt DiBenedetto announced Sept. 7 that he won’t return to the team after this season.

No. 41: Kurt Busch signed a one-year deal in December to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing. He said Aug. 31 at Darlington that he has two contract offers for 2019 but did not reveal what teams they were from. Busch said Sept. 7 he had no updates on his status.

DRIVERS WITHOUT ANNOUNCED PLANS FOR 2019

AJ Allmendinger: He has not announced what his plans will be for 2019.

Trevor Bayne: 2011 Daytona 500 winner is looking for a ride after the Sept. 12 announcement that he won’t return to Roush Fenway Racing in 2019. He told NBC Sports on Sept. 14 that he has been calling car owners looking for a ride and would look at any of NASCAR’s top three national series. 

Kurt Busch: 2004 champion’s contract expires after this season with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Jamie McMurray: Although he has not revealed his plans, car owner Chip Ganassi told the AP that he had offered McMurray a contract for only the 2019 Daytona 500 before McMurray would move into a management role.

Daniel Suarez: With reports stating that Martin Truex Jr. will go to Joe Gibbs Racing and drive the No. 19, Suarez is looking for a ride. He said Sept. 21 that “we’re talking to a lot of people.” Suarez is the favorite for the No. 41 ride.

Martin Truex Jr: Reigning series champion has not announced a ride for 2019 with the Sept. 4 news that Furniture Row Racing is shutting down after this season. Truex, though, is expected to move to the No. 19 at Joe Gibbs Racing and replace Daniel Suarez.

CREW CHIEF CHANGES

No. 24: Chad Knaus replaces Darian Grubb as William Byron‘s crew chief in 2019 (announcement made Oct. 10)

No. 48: Kevin Meendering will replace Chad Knaus as Jimmie Johnson‘s crew chief in 2019 (announcement made Oct. 10)

XFINITY SERIES

ANNOUNCED CHANGES FOR 2019

No. 1: Noah Gragson replaces Elliott Sadler at JR Motorsports beginning next year (announcement made Sept. 25).