Sunday, February 17, 2019

CUP: Casey Mears’ return to Cup competition ends with mid-race wreck

PHOTO: David PeQueen, @CarSDS2078
Casey Mears picked up the 5th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #27 Rim Ryderz Chevrolet was involved in a multi-car crash after 104 of 207 laps.

The finish, which came in Mears’ 489th series start, was his first in a Cup Series race since October 9, 2016 at Charlotte, 79 races ago. In Cup Series last-place history, it was the 26th for car #27, the 575th from a crash, and the 757th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 52nd for the #27, the 1,169th from a crash, and the 1,642nd for Chevrolet.

Daytona set the stage for a reunion between Mears and Germain Racing. The journeyman driver of the famous “Mears Gang” first climbed aboard Bob Germain’s #13 car in late August 2010, and helped grow the team from a part-time “start-and-park” program into a solid mid-pack contender, complete with continued sponsorship from GEICO Insurance. The relationship lasted more than six full seasons before Mears was released at the end of 2016 for rookie contender Ty Dillon, who has driven the #13 to this day.

GEICO stayed with Mears in 2017, backing a part-time XFINITY Series effort with longtime team owner Fred Biagi and the Biagi-DenBeste #98 Ford. At Fontana, Mears made his first series start since 2010 and finished a respectable 14th, then earned a pair of 9th-place showings at Richmond and Road America. But when Stewart-Haas Racing formed a partnership with the Biagi team last year, Mears was out, replaced by another group of young guns.

Mears was absent from NASCAR’s top three series through all of last year, and had no plans to compete in 2019. That changed on February 5, just five days before pole qualifying for the Daytona 500, when Germain Racing announced they would field a second “open” car alongside Ty Dillon’s flagship #13. The car, unsponsored at the time, was #27, and used a number font similar to that driven by Paul Menard when he campaigned one of Richard Childress Racing’s Chevrolets.

As an “open” car – one of six entered for the final four spots – speed proved critical. Mears started the Cup part of SpeedWeeks 19th in opening practice, then turned a single lap in the second session that put him 28th of 37 entrants. In qualifying, Mears ranked 26th overall with a speed of 189.849mph (47.406 seconds), edging Ryan Truex by less than three-hundredths of a second for the last spot locked-in to the 500 field on speed. Mears ended up falling back on that time with a 17th-place finish in Duel Race 2, and he thus secured the 40th and final starting spot.

By the time of the Duels, Mears picked up sponsorship from skateboard accessory manufacturer Rim Ryderz. The flat black Chevrolet with pink roof numbers was then changed slightly with the company’s logo on the hood and quarter-panels, a narrower number font similar to one of Donnie Allison’s old Fords, and a couple accents on the doors. Closing out the week, the new scheme ran 22nd of 38 drivers in the third session, then didn’t turn a lap in either of the last two practices.

On race day, Mears incurred a redundant tail-end penalty for Sunday’s race due to a transmission change, the same reason that Kyle Larson dropped to the rear in his #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet. Joining the pair was Jamie McMurray, whose likely final Cup start in Spire Motorsports’ #40 McDonald’s / Cessna Chevrolet involved a drop to the back for a rear gear change. Mears remained behind the #40 and #42, who pulled to the high lane as they dropped to the rear on the final pace lap. Mears also dropped back from the pack, and was briefly joined by rookie Matt Tifft in the #36 Speedco Ford before Tifft resumed his spot a couple rows up.

When the green flag fell, Mears held last place, then pulled high alongside fellow Row 20 occupant Tyler Reddick. Reddick, the defending XFINITY Series champion, had also locked himself in on speed driving an “open” car from the Richard Childress Racing stables, a #31 Chevrolet sponsored by Symbicort. Mears worked his way past Reddick, then ducked in behind Cody Ware, making his first 500 start in his family’s #52 Winn-Dixie Chevrolet. Mears and Ware then slipped past Reddick, dropping the #31 to last at the end of Lap 1.

On Lap 2, the outside line began to move again, and Ware slipped to last. He then quickly lost touch with the pack, followed soon after by teammate B.J. McLeod in the team’s #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet on Lap 10. On the 13th go-round, Ware was then warned to watch for the approaching leaders, telling him to pull low, then move back up when he could find a place in line. On Lap 16, leader Matt DiBenedetto caught and passed Ware in his fast #95 Procore Toyota as the group entered Turn 3. As the group whisked past off Turn 4, Denny Hamlin nearly lost control as he pulled down in front of Ware. Hamlin would ultimately recover to win his second Daytona 500.

On Lap 17, Ware tried to slot into line ahead of a trailing three-car pack led by fellow “open” driver Brendan Gaughan in the #62 Beard Oil / South Point Chevrolet. Two laps later, Gaughan and the other two cars scooped Ware out of line, and the #52 was again losing touch with the draft.

On that same lap, the 19th circuit, Corey LaJoie drew the race’s first caution for the third straight Daytona 500. This time around, he drove for Go FAS Racing, a ride vacated by DiBenedetto before ultimately landing the #95 of Leavine Family Racing. Carrying one of designer David Marrero’s most unique paint schemes – one with LaJoie’s face covering the entire front valence – a right-front tire let go, destroying much of the space around the graphic’s right ear. LaJoie made it to pit road under the ensuing caution, then lost a second lap on the 21st circuit, dropping him to last behind Ware.

Unlike Ware, who again lost touch with the draft on the Lap 24 restart, LaJoie still had some success in keeping up with some of the cars, and found himself drafting the #15 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet of Ross Chastain. LaJoie then worked his way past Chastain, and Ware and Chastain worked in tandem on trying to draft past the #32. The experiment was short-lived, as this time Ware lost touch with Chastain, and was 37.2 seconds back of the lead by Lap 44.

The first caution for an accident occurred on Lap 49. Near the front, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s #17 Fastenal Ford closed on the #1 Monster Energy Chevrolet of Kurt Busch. With Stenhouse closing on the left-rear corner of Busch’s Chevrolet, the #1 suddenly spun out, scrubbing the apron before collecting both Bubba Wallace in the #43 Aftershokz Chevrolet and Jamie McMurray’s #40. All three cars made it back to pit road, but Busch and Wallace incurred the heaviest damage. On Lap 52, Wallace returned to action two laps down with the nose heavily taped. Busch followed soon after with a mangled left-rear corner. Both remained in front of LaJoie, now three laps down, when the race restarted on Lap 54, and was a fourth down by Lap 58.

Lap 62 brought the caution that ended Stage 1, allowing Wallace, Busch, and LaJoie the time to make extra repairs. The next time by, Wallace took last when his stop ran too long, dropping him four laps down onto the same circuit as LaJoie. On Lap 65, Wallace took the green flag ahead of McMurray and Tifft, who both split him on either side down the backstretch. It was from here on out that Wallace’s wounded car ran visibly off the pace, at one point losing a lap for each six to seven he’d completed. He lost a fifth circuit on Lap 74, a sixth on Lap 81, and was a seventh down by Lap 89.

It was on Lap 89 that Busch’s own damage caught up to him, the left-rear of his black car coming loose and flapping behind him. Now seven laps down on the same circuit as Wallace, Busch ran 40th for the first time in the race. Wallace retook last after a stop on Lap 91, at which point the driver was considering parking his car as the field was running so much faster. By Lap 97, Wallace was nine laps down, then ten on Lap 103.

Mears, meanwhile, was running in a separate draft along with Parker Kligerman in the #96 Toyota: Proud Sponsor of Team USA Toyota fielded by Gaunt Brothers Racing. On Lap 107, Mears was drafting Kligerman when the two made contact entering Turn 1. The two collided and spun, destroying the right-front of Mears’ car and the rear of Kligerman’s. As the two rolled down the backstretch under caution, Kligerman gestured at Mears before both made it to the pits. While Kligerman made it back onto the track, Mears pulled into the garage, done for the day under the Damaged Vehicle Policy. Mears was “unavailable” on Race View on Lap 109, then on Lap 115 took last from Wallace.

Wallace only climbed one more spot to 38th before he retired with crash damage. In doing so, he slipped past Ware, who along with McLeod lost control coming onto pit road on Lap 159, triggering a pit pileup that collected Reddick, Stenhouse, and Jimmie Johnson. Ware pulled behind the wall soon after, done for the day. Rounding out the group were Chris Buescher and Matt Tifft, both eliminated in the grinding Lap 192 pileup that decimated much of the field.

The same wreck put an abrupt end to a career race for Matt DiBenedetto. After showing speed in both qualifying and the Duels, the popular driver led the field for a race-high 49 laps, at one point weaving through two lanes of lapped traffic before a mid-race caution. He was still among the leaders when contact from Paul Menard sent him around, leaving him a disappointing 28th.

Surviving the chaos were Michael McDowell, who followed-up his strong Daytona showing last July to run as high as 3rd before he settled for 5th. Ty Dillon, Mears’ teammate, finished 6th in his second-straight Daytona points race, his two best career finishes to date. Ryan Preece expertly weaved through two of the race’s biggest pileups to himself threaten for a Top Five before taking a career-best 8th. And Ross Chastain closed out a weekend where he ran 3rd in Trucks and 13th in XFINITY with a career-best 10th. It was just the second Cup Series top-ten for team owner Jay Robinson and his first since the 2017 Daytona 500, where Michael Waltrip ran 8th.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #27 in the Daytona 500. The number had twice trailed the July race at Daytona on July 1, 2006 with owner-driver Kirk Shelmerdine and July 6, 2013 with Paul Menard.
*The 104 laps completed by Mears are the third-most by a last-place finisher of the Daytona 500, edging Matt Kenseth’s 103 laps on February 26, 2017. The top two remain Kenny Wallace’s 141 on February 17, 2008 and Tony Stewart’s record 152 on February 18, 2007.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #27-Casey Mears / 104 laps / crash
39) #52-Cody Ware / 155 laps / crash
38) #43-Bubba Wallace / 169 laps / crash
37) #37-Chris Buescher / 190 laps / crash
36) #36-Matt Tifft / 190 laps / crash

2019 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Germain Racing (1)

2019 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (1)

2019 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

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