Last year, Casey Mears didn't even know whether he'd have a job in big-time stock car racing. This year, he can dream about making the Chase and talk about winning races and actually sound sensible.
And it's not just because of two top-10 runs to start the year. It's a shift in attitude and performance that dates back to last season and has the driver feeling legitimate.
"I spent the last three years trying to establish myself as a driver in the Nextel Cup Series," said Mears, who will turn 28 on March 12. "And I think I have finally done that."
Mears spent the last three seasons averaging a finish of 24th. But he has spent his last nine races trying to turn that around and, at last, announce his presence on the NASCAR scene. In that span, he has posted six top-10 finishes, including second- and seventh-place finishes in two races this year that have him positioned just behind leader Jimmie Johnson in the points race.
"It feels good now," Mears said. "I'm with a good team. We're fast, and I think a lot of things are going in the right direction.
"Toward the end of last season and [with] what we've accomplished this year, we're somewhat validating the fact we're a contender. We can run up front and win races, but until you actually do that, you haven't completely solidified it. We need to go out and win some races this year. That's our main focus."
Mears said he always has believed he could become a contender on NASCAR's top circuit. The former open-wheel ace didn't believe it would happen during his rookie season, or even his second year, for that matter. Mears knew it would take time for him to learn a whole new style of racing. He knew he would need to acclimate to different cars and strategies. He knew it would take time for him to feel comfortable in NASCAR.
But Mears did become concerned last season when, in a crucial third season, he wasn't getting the finishes he'd hoped for. The team felt as though everyone was finally on the same page, and Mears was ecstatic with his equipment. But bad luck soured the finishes and Mears was mired around 25th in points.
"It was hard on him," owner Chip Ganassi said. "On everybody."
That, Mears said, has put all the pressure on this season -- the fourth and last year under his current contract with Chip Ganassi Racing.
"It's not going to be easy, but no one said it was going to be easy. It's never easy," Mears said. "I think we've come a long way. I think I've come a long way as a driver. I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but I just know how much I've learned. I feel like I'm with a great team that makes good decisions and builds good race cars."
Even with things going in the right direction, though, Mears isn't ready to herald his official arrival. After all, he finished second at Daytona this year in part because he was in the right draft at the right time. And his seventh-place finish at California, although confidence-boosting, is not exactly where Mears meant to arrive. He wants to be a winner, and he wants to be consistently at the head of the pack.
"We've definitely got some work to do with those guys running up front," he said. "It's one thing to be running inside the top 10, but it's half a second to get with those guys running in the top three. We've got to go to work and put our heads together to figure out what we're going to do to beat those guys."
Mears has discovered that it's a whole lot more fun trying to figure things out when you're working from the top. More than anything, he's just happy that questions surrounding his tenure with the team have taken a backseat to another, more welcome query: Does he think he can make the Chase for the Championship playoff field.
"We definitely have a shot at the Chase," he said. "I think, honestly, the last couple of years we've been one of the biggest underdogs and not even mentioned because of the results we've had, obviously. We really felt like we could be contenders. Last year, a lot of bad luck plagued us from getting to that point. This year, we've got the equipment. We've got the cars. The Dodge Charger is working great. We've got everything in our power right now to be in that Chase and to be in the top 10, so we've just got to put all the pieces of the puzzle in the right place, keep our heads up and keep digging and I think we can make it."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.