CONCORD, N.C. — It's hard to say Casey Mears steams into today's Coca-Cola 600 carrying a head of momentum. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet is 27th in Sprint Cup points and has finished 36th and 35th in his past two races.
Then again, Mears is better coming into this year's race than he was a season ago.
He came to Lowe's Motor Speedway last May having finished 35th or worse in four of his previous six races and was in danger of slipping out of the top 35 in the standings. But Mears, then driving the No. 25 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, rode a strong car and good pit strategy to his first career Cup victory — still the only one in his 191 series starts.
That turned his season around; he wound up with five top-fives and was 15th in points.
"I still look back on it and it almost feels like it didn't happen," he said of last year's emotional win on Memorial Day weekend.
"It was a dream night for me and for the team in a lot of ways. I don't think you could have written a script any better. Now we have to try to do it again this year."
Mears finished seventh at Martinsville and Talladega this year. But at Richmond the 30-year-old wrecked into a car he didn't see and finished 36th. At Darlington, a mechanical issue doomed him to 35th at the end of a long night.
Also, NASCAR's new car, in use on intermediate tracks such as the 1.5-mile Charlotte trioval for the first time in 2008, has presented its own challenges for Hendrick teams this year.
Mears is hoping today's race can mark a turning point again.
"This car has been a little bit difficult to try to nail down and get just right," said Mears, whose uncle Rick was a four-time winner of that other race going on today in Indianapolis. "We've slowly been zeroing in on it. There are 100 different changes you can make on these cars. We're narrowing in on what are the most effective ones."
Mears' contract runs through 2009, and he said he believes that what he, crew chief Alan Gustafson and their team need most is to keep growing together.
"The best thing is for us to continue to grow this year and learn as much as we can and get better and go into next season with a fresh start and some continuity," he said.
But Marshall Carlson, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, said that while there are no intentions of making changes with the No. 5 team "other than those to improve performance," that doesn't mean the team doesn't need to show improvement sooner.
"I think everyone here understands we have to constantly be getting better," Carlson aid. "Everyone who touches that team … there is not a single one of them that is satisfied with where we are today.
"What we've done to address that is to redouble our efforts at testing, building new cars, putting everything we can behind getting that team where everyone wants it to be."
Carlson said Charlotte's race weeks typically mark a point in every season at which the Hendrick operation takes a look at how things are going.
"You are kind of able to step back, take a breath and see where things are," Carlson said.
"The 600 is typically a pretty good barometer of a race team. Not just in finishing order, but how does the pit crew stay through that, how does the driver stay through that, what kind of decisions does he make, what kind of calls does the crew chief make.
"That's what we'll look at. Are we improving? Are we holding steady? Are we backing up? I can't answer that question right now.
"I'm sure as we get into the next month or so and looking at the program, we'll have an answer."