Originally created 05/14/05

NASCAR steals Indy-bred driver



RICHMOND, Va. - Casey Mears is among the NASCAR drivers who will tune in today to Pole Day qualifying at the Indianapolis 500.

But while fellow Nextel Cup driver Kevin Harvick said he didn't know the laps were even scheduled and Mark Martin said he might happen upon the qualifying "accidentally," Mears' situation is different.

There was a time when the nephew of four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears and son of two-time Indy starter Roger Mears figured open-wheel racing would be part of his future.

"I was focused 110 percent on going open-wheel racing and running Indy cars," Mears said Friday at Richmond International Raceway before making his qualifying runs for tonight's Chevy 400 Nextel Cup race.

"The fact that I came this direction is completely surprising to me," said Mears, 27. "I can't believe I'm even here."

Since the start of the 2002 season, however, when he left his more familiar surroundings for NASCAR, Mears' perspective has changed.

"The first couple of years I raced stock cars, I had a big desire to go back to open wheel and run," he said. "Now the longer I'm here and the more I learn about this sport, the more fun I have. I really don't have a lot of desire to go back to open wheel at all, other than to run the 500."

Mears' focus on stock cars was also helped by the split in open-wheel racing, which happened in 1996 but continues to yield two diluted series - IRL and Champ Cars - that are well behind NASCAR in popularity.

During his open-wheel days, Mears said he was one of the drivers "living in the dark," convinced that style was America's best.

Now, with three years invested in stock car racing, Mears finds himself more at ease where he is and committed to getting better.

"I think I've learned what is aggressive and what isn't, when to be aggressive and when not to be. ... I think I'm 80 percent there," he said.

Still, he's got a long way to go, and always will.

"This is always a sport that's evolving and changing," Mears said. "I'll be learning every year, but I feel 100 times more comfortable just knowing what to do at a lot of these places just to get to the end."

Mears, who was 35th in the points race two years ago and climbed to 22nd last year, has been running at the end in nine of 10 events this year. But he's still only 25th in points, leading him to suggest that his performance chart so far would resemble the lines on a heart monitor.

"Really, it's been several stupid things that have happened at a lot of races this year," he said. "Every weekend something new comes up."

He was seventh at Las Vegas and fourth a month later at Texas. Otherwise, he's been in the top 20 three times, the top 26 two more times and has finishes of 43rd, 39th and 39th.