Same team, but new winner

Casey Mears earns his first Nextel Cup victory thanks to a fuel gamble, giving Hendrick Motorsports another victory.

Published May 28, 2007

CONCORD, N.C. - Different Casey. Different Hendrick Motorsports driver.

The ball-capped 29-year-old shares the same first name with the previous Coca-Cola 600 winner Kasey Kahne and is part of this season's most dominant racing team (Hendrick drivers have won nine of 12 races this season).

But Sunday, during NASCAR's longest race of the season, Casey Mears made his own mark. He survived car trouble, slipped through a wreck in progress unscathed and trusted crew chief Darian Grubb during the late gas guessing game to claim his first Nextel Cup win.

It was fitting that Mears, often overshadowed by teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, won a race in which the top five included no one higher than 20th in points going into the race - in finishing order, J.J. Yeley (20th), Kyle Petty (31st), Reed Sorenson (29th) and Brian Vickers (43rd). Mears himself was 35th.

Petty, who turns 47 Saturday and notched his first top-five since 1997, said that variety is a good thing; a sign NASCAR is healthy. Vickers recorded Toyota's first top-five of the season.

"The sport needs that mix-up, " Petty said. "You need those guys to come in and win races and run good and show people that we're not just all lapped cars out here. We can come out here and run good every now and then."

Mears, who led only the final six laps, is the fourth Hendrick Motorsports driver to win this season. Since deciding to pursue stock-car racing, rather than the off-road competition that his dad Roger excelled in, Mears has struggled. His team has been confident the past five races. Sunday, everything came together.

"Fortunately it paid off, " Mears said. "I got an unbelievable opportunity out of the blue with that Busch team. I got an unbelievable opportunity the last four years. I feel like the greatest opportunity I have is sitting right here, and it's just very special."

The 600 was less special for other drivers.

All weekend drivers talked about needing patience at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Drive too hard too early, and you'll be packing up your stuff and getting ready for Dover next week. From Gordon's perspective, few drivers remembered that, especially during the daylight when track temperatures were higher. Gordon, the points leader, was involved in a five-car accident on Lap 62.

"I see guys driving way over their heads too early in a 600-mile race - too early for any race, " Gordon said after his crash.

Within 70 laps, there were three wrecks involving 19 cars. The biggest happened on Lap 54 when the casing on Johnson's left rear tire shot across the track.

Johnson had stuck his hand outside his window, apparently to warn fellow drivers that he anticipated trouble with his tire. A few slowed, but then probably only a few saw him. Pole-sitter Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer were closest to Johnson and were involved in the 13-car pileup on the frontstretch.

On Lap 222, Mears avoided a mishap. Carl Edwards had spun, hit the wall and was sliding down when Mears slipped through the wreckage.

Gordon didn't return from his bang-up. Johnson, a heavyweight at Lowe's Motor Speedway, rebounded after his tire problem. But he lost first place with about 60 laps to go after a botched pit stop.

With 20 laps to go, the leaders started slipping into the pits for a quick one- or two-second fill-up and screeched back onto the track. First it was Matt Kenseth, then Tony Stewart, then Dale Earnhardt Jr., then Denny Hamlin. Mears, who had climbed from his 16th starting position, held steady.

He ran out of gas and rolled into pit road to meet his team.

"I had a 10, 000-pound gorilla just jump off my back, " Mears said.

Kellie Dixon can be reached at kdixon@sptimes.com or (352) 544-9480.