Barrage of issues no match for Mears and Geico team in Martinsville
Martinsville Speedway is notorious for evoking raw emotion from NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers. Casey Mears would be among the first to experience elevated blood pressure, but not before taking to the track for practice and qualifying.
Rain threatened the Martinsville area on Friday, but stayed clear long enough to allow Mears and his No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS to land 14th on the speed chart when the weekend's first practice session ended. When qualifying got underway at 4:40 PM (EDT), Mears quickly navigated the ½-mile, paperclip-shaped oval in just 19.205-seconds, placing him 23rd on the STP 500 starting grid. His qualifying effort was marked improvement over a year ago, when he started the race from the 41st position. Saturday was a washout at the track, leading to the cancellation of both NASCAR Sprint Cup series practices.
While NASCAR is widely regarded as a summer sport, one would have argued otherwise when they were greeted by snow and sleet as they arrived at the track on Sunday morning. Fortunately, gray skies gave way to sunshine and the race got underway at its scheduled start time. Mears rolled off the starting grid from the 23rd position, but it wouldn't take long for the action to heat up. Cars began stacking up on just the second lap, causing minor rear-end damage to the GEICO Chevy. NASCAR ordered Mears to pit so the Germain Racing pit crew could remove a hanging bumper bar. Consequently, he would restart the race from the 35th position when the green flag waved on lap 11.
Mears had worked his way up to 31st by the time the scheduled competition caution slowed the field on lap 40. He alerted crew chief Bootie Barker that he was "way too tight in the center and have zero grip off." During his visit to pit road, the GEICO Racing pit crew outfitted Mears with four fresh Goodyear tires, a full tank of Sunoco racing fuel, and a trackbar, wedge and air pressure adjustment. The changes favored Mears and he began to march to the front of the field when the race went back to green.
Mears had penetrated the top 20 on lap 69 and was sitting in the 16th position when the yellow flag waved on lap 114. Barker advised Mears to quickly make his way to pit road, which found Mears passing competitors under caution to get to his pit stall and have the team 'stand his tire up'. It was a strategy call by Barker that he felt would pay off in the long-term. Unfortunately, NASCAR held Mears for a lap as a penalty for pulling up to pit (not holding his position under caution). Barker calmed Mears by reassuring him they would have lost the lap anyway. Mears and the No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet had their work cut out for them, starting in the 33rd position, one lap down, when the green flag turned the field loose on lap 120.
Mears was making progress, but would experience yet another setback when the No. 38 car of David Gilliland sent the GEICO Chevy for a spin on lap 170. An audibly upset Mears received only minor damage and visited pit road for tires, fuel and repairs. Now, two laps down in 34th, Barker promised Mears they would get the laps back as the race returned to green on lap 180. Barker began making good on his promise when he ordered Mears and the GEICO machine to take the wavearound during the lap 200 caution, recovering one of the lost laps. Things were headed in the right direction when the caution flag was displayed on lap 220. The caution was perfect timing, as the team had just taken the wavearound on lap 200, leaving them in need of fresh tires. After taking on four tires, fuel and adjustments, Mears notified Barker that his shifter handle was broken as he was coming to the green flag, where he restarted from the 28th position.
Unfortunately, on the lap 237 restart, Mears told the team that the shifter broke and that the No. 13 GEICO Chevy was stuck in fourth gear, meaning, among other things, the pit crew would need to push the car to get it started after each visit to pit road. Despite the additional setback, Mears continued to turn in fast lap times and was awarded the free pass when the caution came out on lap 251, allowing him to return to the lead lap.
Mears and his GEICO team would continue to battle for the balance of the event, even recording lap times faster than the leaders many times during the race. When the checkered flag closed the STP 500, Mears had overcome the obstacles and managed to record a lead lap, 24th place finish. Barker thanked the crew as Mears crossed the finish line: "Way to battle today, everybody. Good job."
"I'm glad we were able to keep fighting and at least finish on the lead lap and get a top 25, but we had a much better car than that," Mears said. "We just had a lot of things happen today and I'm proud of the guys on this GEICO team for all of their hard work and their 'never quit' attitude. We're looking forward to getting to Texas next week."
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