On Valentine's Day, Casey Mears whipped around Daytona International Speedway in his normal effortless fashion, avoiding multiple crashes and hustling his No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS to a fourth place finish in the season opening Sprint Unlimited. The 2006 Rolex 24 at Daytona winner knows well the nuances of the famed speedway and has mastered them over the years. Unfortunately, an engine would be the cause of his frustration during Thursday night's Duel 150's.
This year, a new Daytona 500 qualifying format left much of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series entry list frustrated and confused. While Mears boasts a fast racecar, his No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS ended up 31st when group qualifying was complete on Sunday, leaving him to start 16th in Thursday's opening Duel 150. While Mears' ability would all but ensure his place on the Daytona 500 starting grid, he would need to first survive any potential calamity in the Duel and also finish in the top 15 cars to lock himself into the field.
Temperatures in the high 30's would find Mears and the GEICO team bundled up in winter attire on pit road on Thursday night. Action would heat up quickly and the cold temperatures would soon be an afterthought. Starting from the 16th position, Mears quickly jumped to 15th on the opening lap, but remained there for the first 14 laps, as he felt out his car and kept a close eye on the draft. On lap 14, he quickly shot up to 10th and was charging hard before a bad vibration found Mears on the radio with his crew chief, Bootie Barker. Soon after, spotter Ron Lewis notified him that smoke was billowing from the rear of his GEICO Chevy and advised him to depart the racing surface. As he made his way to pit road, team members feared the worst. They needed to finish in the top 15 to lock themselves into the race, but now found their driver behind the wall with an engine issue just 16 laps into the 60 lap event. The unexpected twist left Germain Racing at risk of not qualifying for the Daytona 500.
Mears and his GEICO team would need help from fellow competitors to secure a starting position in Sunday's race. While the second Duel got underway, Mears was with Barker and the team's engineering staff tucked away in the hauler lounge eyeing every lap of the race while also sharpening their pencils and utilizing their math skills. With each lap came new facts and figures. One lap would find them in the race, while the next one had them on the outside looking in. While 60 laps would seem like an eternity to learn their fate, the mood never changed, as the entire team was cool, calm and collected as they listened to Barker and company explore scenarios.
It was not until the checkered flag waved over the second Duel that they learned their fate. The hauler erupted in cheer and high-fives and hugs were abound. Mears and his No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS will start 41st in Sunday's Great American Race.
"The guys all worked really hard on our Daytona cars and we had a great run in the Sprint Unlimited, so we were hopeful when the race started tonight," Mears said. "Our biggest concern was being able to survive the wrecks and keep the car clean. The engine came as a surprise and certainly threw us a curveball. We learned a lot about this GEICO team tonight. We were all levelheaded the entire time and no one got upset or nervous, which shows how much character these guys have. I'm proud of everyone at Germain Racing and look forward to getting back on the track for 500 practice tomorrow and Saturday and then the race on Sunday. I appreciate GEICO's support, along with all of our partners, as well as our team owner, Bob Germain. We have a strong organization and we'll get after it on Sunday."
Mears and his GEICO Chevy returned to the track on Friday afternoon for two Daytona 500 practices. After installing a new engine, they hit the track and worked on different items with the car before parking for the day. Mears finished up 12th in both sessions. Saturday's final Daytona 500 practice will see them spending time in the draft as they prepare for Sunday's main event.