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In the Pits: Casey Mears looking for a new ride

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - If nice guys got all the best NASCAR rides, Casey Mears would have a job for life.

But racing is a results-based business, and Mears simply doesn't have them through 53 races with elite Hendrick Motorsports. So team owner Rick Hendrick had to make the difficult decision to cut ties with a driver he considers part of his family.

'He's one of the world's greatest guys, we just didn't have him in the right situation and I take a lot of responsibility for that,' Hendrick said Monday. 'I am a big Casey Mears fan and I always will be. But this is the part of this business that I hate.

'In almost everything I do, I preach and practice loyalty and friendship. But this business is about performance.'

And without it, Mears couldn't survive the job of a lifetime with NASCAR's top organization.

Although winless in four seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing, Mears had mild success and finished a career-best 14th in the standings following the 2006 season. But a seat had opened up at Hendrick, where his best friend Jimmie Johnson was racing for championships and Mears had a strong bond with the owner.

As one of Ricky Hendrick's close friends, Mears became a frequent guest at Hendrick family functions. He also mourned with the family following the 2004 plane crash that killed Ricky and nine others.

Ricky had always wanted Mears to drive for the organization, and when the opportunity came, Hendrick fulfilled his late son's wish by luring Mears away from Ganassi.

Their first season together was decent. Mears scored his first career victory in the prestigious Coca-Cola 600, had 10 top-10 finishes and was 15th in points. And sometime after Mears' Memorial Day victory, Hendrick showed a commitment to Mears when he had an opportunity to sign Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Even though Mears was clearly the weak link in the powerful Hendrick lineup, the owner kept Mears and instead fired talented but temperamental Kyle Busch to make room for NASCAR's most popular driver. Hendrick said later the analogy had been made during the Earnhardt frenzy that firing Mears 'would have been like shooting Bambi.'

That's how Hendrick feels about Mears, who is so well-liked it would be nearly impossible to find anyone with a bad thing to say about the clean-cut nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears.

'There has never been anyone who has driven a car for me that represented our company any better,' Hendrick said. 'He goes above and beyond whatever you need him to do. You know you could count on him. He's just a model person for the company.'

Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to keep his seat.

Moved to Busch's old team when Earnhardt came aboard, Mears got a crew and cars that won four races and made the Chase the past two seasons. It should have led to similar results for Mears, but the No. 5 team has instead taken two steps back in what's been a frustrating first half of the season.

Mears heads into this weekend's race in Daytona ranked 23rd in the standings with just two top-10 finishes. Both of them came in the past two weeks - after Hendrick had already made up his mind to release him at the end of the season.

Mears' numbers aren't really that bad considering the struggles Hendrick's drivers have had with the full-time use of the Car of Tomorrow, Mears having to adapt to his fourth crew chief in four years and the bad luck his team had at the start of the season. Wrecks in Daytona and California led to season-opening 35th and 42nd-place finishes that put the team 34th in the standings after three races.

Plenty of teams in NASCAR would overlook his mediocre stats, but Hendrick Motorsports doesn't have that flexibility. Johnson is the two-time defending Cup champion and perennial contender and Jeff Gordon already has four titles. Now Earnhardt is in the mix and he's a Hendrick-best third in the points after recently breaking his 76-race winless streak.

Hendrick already made one bad business decision in choosing Mears over Busch, who has a series-best five victories driving for Joe Gibbs Racing and is leading the Sprint Cup standings. Now, with rumblings out there that Mark Martin might take over the No. 5 in a last-ditch effort to win the championship that's eluded him for 26 years, Hendrick can't whiff again.

But that doesn't mean Mears shouldn't land somewhere else. Despite just 40 top-10s in five-plus seasons, he's an attractive hire with the potential for a long and successful career with the right organization. In hindsight, he was probably in the right place at Ganassi. But a driver can't turn down a chance to drive for Hendrick, even if the expectations exceed the talent level.

So now Mears starts looking for the right fit, and Hendrick is confident one is out there.

'He's a top 15 driver in the sport and he's got the whole package,' Hendrick said. 'NASCAR needs him, and needs him at the top level.'