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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”