Mears Takes Brickyard Pole

INDIANAPOLIS -- Casey Mears grew up dreaming about winning poles and races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He just never pictured doing it in a stock car.
On Saturday, Mears took a big step in his budding NASCAR Nextel Cup career, and the first step toward emulating the Indianapolis success of uncle Rick Mears, by winning the pole for the Brickyard 400.
He took full advantage of an early draw in the qualifying line to post a lap of 186.293 mph. That broke the Indianapolis stock car qualifying record of 184.343, set last year by Kevin Harvick.
"It feels great to be back here at Indy and holding up the Mears name proud,'' Casey said after driving his No. 41 Dodge to the second pole of his career and second in as many weeks. "Hopefully, I will have a good race on Sunday. It would just mean everything in the world.''
After seeing his father, Roger, race at the speedway in the early '80's, and watching Uncle Rick win six poles and four races in the Indianapolis 500, Casey always pictured himself racing an open-wheel car on the 2½-mile Indy oval.
The youngster, then 23, tried to make the 500 in 2001 but was unable to get a Galles Racing entry up to speed and came up short in last-minute qualifying effort after jumping into a car fielded by Derrick Walker.
"I think this is a good feeling of redemption,'' Mears said. "To have such a horrible month and not qualify for the show was just heartbreaking. I've got a lot of unfinished business here and this is a real good first step.''
Unable to come up with a steady ride in CART or the IRL, the frustrated Mears tried his hand at stock car racing and got a full-time opportunity in 2003 with Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
After a long, difficult rookie season in Cup, with no finish better than 15th, Mears has been something of a surprise this season. Going into Sunday's race, he has seven top 10 finishes and stands a very respectable 16th in the points.
In his first stock car race here, Mears qualified 28th and finished 29th.
"Last year, we came here with a great team and struggled,'' he said. "I was just very inexperienced. I've got great experience under my belt now, and we're running awesome. The team is putting some great race cars underneath me and I'm finally able to drive them.''
But the Indy pole is easily his best moment in racing so far, and a congratulatory phone call from Uncle Rick made it even better.
"He told me to remember it's a long race and to be patient and be smart,'' said Casey, who finished 18th after starting from the pole last Sunday at Pocono -- his 56th Cup start.
Ganassi, who raced in the 500 in the early '80's and won the May race as a car owner in 2000 with Juan Pablo Montoya, was almost as happy with the pole as Mears.
"It's very nice to be part of the Mears legacy here at Indianapolis,'' Ganassi said. "I like this kid and I hope he's driving for us for a long time.''
The top six qualifiers for Sunday's race were all faster than Harvick's lap. Ward Burton, who held the pole briefly before Mears made his run, wound up second at 185.391, followed by Elliott Sadler at 185.162, Joe Nemechek at 184.976, Dale Earnhardt at 184.968 and rookie Brian Vickers at 184.665.
Earnhardt, still recovering after being injured in a sports car crash on July 18, was the first of 50 drivers to make qualifying attempts.
The son of the late Dale Earnhardt, who won the Brickyard race in 1995, said his most severe injuries -- burns on his legs -- are healing slowly but that he hopes to drive the entire race after using relief drivers each of the past two weeks.
"I shouldn't have any problems doing it,'' Junior said after his strong qualifying run. "I'm really looking forward to this whole weekend. We've got a brand new car and we've got a lot of excitement about it.''
Rounding out the top 10 were Ryan Newman, Ganassi driver Jamie McMurray, series points leader Jimmie Johnson, coming off a victory at Pocono, and Ganassi driver Sterling Marlin.
Three-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon was 11th, while defending Brickyard champion Harvick qualified 32nd.
Bobby Labonte, another former Indy winner, had to use a provisional after blowing his engine during his qualifying attempt and will start 39th in the 43-car field.
Two-time Brickyard winner Dale Jarrett will start 17th, while Bill Elliott, who won two years ago and is racing only part-time in the Cup series, qualified 18th and Ricky Rudd, another former winner, also had to take a provisional after a slow qualifying lap and will start 40th.