- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2008

LOUDON, N.H. | Casey Mears will say goodbye to Hendrick Motorsports at the end of the 2008 season.

Now that his long-rumored departure from one of NASCAR’s top teams is official, all Mears wants to do is finish the Sprint Cup season strong, showing everyone what might have been.

“It’s frustrating to go through these scenarios but, beyond this right here, we’re still at the race track,” Mears said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “We’re trying to make the best race car we possibly can. That team’s got a lot of pride. They want to run well. I want to run well. We’re just going to continue to work hard.

“There are no hard feelings anywhere,” he said. “And now we’ve just got to focus and buckle down and do our jobs like we know how.”

The 30-year-old Mears, who has driven for Rick Hendrick since 2007, spent his first season with the powerhouse team in the underachieving No. 25 car that had long been the team’s weak link, but he did get his one and only Cup victory that May at Charlotte.

With the arrival of Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season, taking over that ride and changing it to No. 88, Mears was moved to the No. 5 Chevrolet that was driven last year by Kyle Busch.

But the move to the car in which Busch won a race, had 20 top-10s and finished fifth in the points hasn’t produced the hoped-for results. While teammates Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are all in the top seven in points this year, Mears has only three top-10 finishes and is 24th in the season standings heading into Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301.

Still, Mears, coming off a season-best fifth-place finish last Sunday at Sonoma, said he believes he and the No. 5 team are capable of running near the front of the field the rest of the season.

“I think that Hendrick Motorsports is as committed as ever to making sure they’ve got a fast race car, if not maybe more,” Mears said. “Obviously, now that we know we’ve struggled a little bit, they really want to find exactly why that has been.

“For myself, I want to do the same.”

In the past, lame duck drivers often have moved on before the end of the season if another ride came along. Mears did not rule out such a move later this year.

“I’m going to have discussions about next season with other teams,” he said. “If something develops toward the end of the year where it makes sense for everybody, given the scenario, I don’t know exactly what the future holds. But, right now, my plan is to finish off the rest of the year with Hendrick Motorsports.

“When it gets down to the end of the year, you start seeing things happen that you wouldn’t have thought would happen at this point in the season. We’ll see how that plays out as time goes on. But right now, I think that Hendrick Motorsports is very committed [to] seeing the No. 5 car do well, and I’m the same.”

In a release Friday announcing that Mears would not be retained, Hendrick said, “We’ve put a ton of emphasis on the No. 5 program. It’s been a total team effort, and Casey has worked as hard as anyone to help us improve. We’ve tested more than we ever have, but the results just haven’t come.

“None of us, Casey included, have been satisfied with the situation this season. But he’s confident there are other options out there for him in 2009, and we feel like Hendrick Motorsports will have some opportunities, too.”

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