For Casey Mears, the Sprint Cup season starts in earnest when the series comes to California, his native state.

The Richard Childress Racing driver is one of six drivers competing on 'home soil' at the Auto Club Speedway this weekend - along with Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Scott Speed and Kevin Harvick - and admits that he would love to win there before his career is over.

"One thing about coming to California is that I have a lot of friends and family, and it makes it one of the races I want to win the most," said Mears who, like RCR team-mate Harvick, grew up in nearby Bakersfield, "You have to look at Daytona as Daytona, and then you have to look at the rest of the season. There are so many different elements in Daytona that we don't have to deal with on a given race weekend. . .

"Obviously, we're dealing with cars that we can't tweak or tune that much, since there are a lot of set rules in Daytona. When you come to California, it's all so new, and you feel like now the season's starting. Now we can put what we want in these cars and really find out how we stack up against the rest of the field.

"We know that, if we go to Daytona and we're a little down on speed, we can still get in the pack and go race. Here, you're going to find out real quick where you're at, where you stack up. What do we need to work on so definitely have that feeling. Now we're out of Daytona and looking forward to getting some laps on the track and find out where our 1.5-mile and two-mile programme is."

Mears admitted that he had mixed fortunes about the opening round of the season, even though the way he and the #07 performed gave him confidence for the future.

"I felt real good about Daytona, I felt good about our performance, I felt good about how the car drove - it was just unfortunate that it ended when it did," he reflected, "I think you have two extreme opinions on the way the race ended versus what Matt [Kenseth] had to say.

"We just had a really good car. I felt like we could have been inside the top ten or top five but, at the same time, we could have been in a real big one there at the end so we came home with 15th. We got some good, clean, solid points and we look forward to this weekend."

Having swapped teams over the off-season, however, Mears revealed that he was keen to make his mark at Richard Childress Racing, but admitted that he might have to bide his time.

"I don't think it's any different than I normally feel going into the first part of the year, but I think that, if you talk to anybody, to get a win right out of the gate relaxes anybody's year a little bit," he explained, "We'd love to obviously but, at the end of the day, I think where a lot of RCR's success has been obviously in being consistent as well.

"First off, when we set foot on the race track, we're out there to win but, if you realise that you're in a position where it's going to be tough to win, you try to salvage all the points that you possibly can and be as consistent as you can. I think, if you look at the way my season started last year, we had a crash at Daytona and slipped in the water and got upside down here. To have two races like that out the gate, where we don't hardly get any points at all, just killed us.

"Although we want to have a lot of success early, I think there is a lot of focus in getting five solid races in to establish a good place in the points."

by Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service