NASCAR NEXTEL Cup driver Casey Mears transitioned from the Car of Tomorrow to a conventional version of his No. 25 Hendrick Motorsports machine during a one-day test at Kentucky Speedway today and may have found the spark he'll need to have a strong performance at Texas Motor Speedway this Sunday.

The 29-year-old from Bakersfield, Calif., and his team led by crew chief Darian Grubb found valuable speed in a new car that should help the driver improve on his average 29th-place race finish through the first six events of the season.

"Our season so far has been a struggle. We were hoping to pick up and go, but we're finding out there's just a lot to work on and change," Mears said.

"We're actually here testing the first new car we've built for the season. All the cars we ran at the beginning of the year on the mile-and-a-half and two-mile racetracks were prepared last year, and, even then, we weren't up to par with the No. 48 (of defending series champion and teammate Jimmie Johnson) and the No. 24 (of teammate and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon).

"We've finally built a car that's very, very similar to the 48 and it looks as if we've picked up two- to three-tenths of a second, which is huge. The car is much more comfortable to drive. I'm really looking forward to going to Texas, I think we're headed down the right road on a lot of things."

Despite scoring his lone top-10 finish of the season in a Car of Tomorrow with a 10th-place run at Bristol Motor Speedway March 25, he said the addition of the new car design to the series repertoire has made the challenge of succeeding with a new team more difficult.

"For us, in a transitional stage coming over to Hendrick Motorsports, and Darian and I getting to know each other, to throw a whole other car into the mix with a totally different train of thought on how you set it up and need to approach it is definitely putting more workload on us as a new team. But then, for all the organizations out there, to build and maintain two totally different cars in the fab shop and on the shop floor is a huge undertaking. The sooner they (NASCAR) figure(s) out which direction we're going to go and the sooner we get to one car, the easier it's going to be on all teams," Mears said.

In light of the added challenge, he is keeping an open mind about the return of the Car of Tomorrow at Phoenix International Raceway April 21.

"I think you've definitely got to see what's its going to do on all the tracks before you make any final determinations. From what I understand, NASCAR hasn't said that this is final and they're definitely open for suggestions. They have to be because it's a totally different car.

"I don't feel like in any way, shape or form it's a disadvantage, because everybody has the same car. In all reality, everybody's trying to be really politically correct on the answers they're giving about it. If you want to compare car to car, it's (Car of Tomorrow) just a lot slower car than the one we run right now. The bottom line is it has less downforce and less overall grip. Some of the things built mechanically into the car, like a chassis with a higher center of gravity, combine to make it go slower.

"When someone asks us, 'How do you like the Car of Tomorrow?,' as a driver, your initial thoughts are, 'I don't like it as much because it's no secret that the way it's built, it's inherently slower.' I think from a performance perspective it's difficult to swallow.

"Relative to the field, we're good and that's where things are getting confused. If that's the direction NASCAR wants to go to slow the cars down and make a car that has less grip, they've accomplished that. Everybody has the same thing, so nobody should complain that they're not getting something somebody else is. It's a tough topic right now because everybody wants to see it succeed and do well. At the same time, it's going to take a ton of work to get it to the level of the car we currently drive."

With 30 races remaining on the 2007 schedule, Grubb and his team are ready and willing to put in the hard work they'll need to help Mears make up his 500-point deficit from the top spot in the series standings and better last season's 14th-place championship finish.

"Once we get it all right, there's going to be a lot of success here. It's just going to take us a while to figure it all out," Mears said.

Two-time NEXTEL Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, who begins the week eighth in the series standings and 240 points behind the first-place Gordon, tested his Texas Motor Speedway back-up car at Kentucky Speedway today. He finished third in the 2006 Texas spring race and took a win in the fall event at the track. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was on a compressed schedule that did not allow for interview.

Story by Mike Schmaltz

~ Kentucky Speedway ~