CONCORD, N.C. - Casey Mears did not expect to find himself looking for work so soon.
The NASCAR veteran began the year as the newest driver at Richard Childress Racing, taking over at the wheel of the No. 07 Chevrolet and hoping to revive a career that could not get out of neutral at Hendrick Motorsports.
Mears has done that, putting himself 18th in points entering Sunday's race at Martinsville, ahead of established RCR stars Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick. But the final five races could still be another audition for Mears after Jack Daniels, the primary sponsor on his car, chose not to return in 2010.
He knows it's part of the game, particularly in the midst of an economic recession, but it does not make it any easier.
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"I was at the shop talking to the guys," Mears said, "and not knowing what the future holds can be a little unnerving."
He is hardly alone. A handful of drivers are updating their resumes as they look for places to drive next season. Reed Sorenson, Jamie McMurray and David Stremme are all in the final days of their contracts.
Team owner Richard Childress has spoken to several companies about coming on board, but he did not sound optimistic about Mears' immediate future before last week's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. He does not want to turn the car into a "start and park," either - slang for cars that qualify and then head to the garage after a couple of laps because of a lack of sponsorship.
"To be competitive, that isn't the way to do it," Childress said.
And that is not the way Mears would want it.
Then again, it may beat the alternative. There are plenty of former Cup regulars who do not have that luxury of trying to qualify a car.
"If you're not in this garage or racing, you'll be forgotten about," Stremme said. "The thing is, there's always going to be somebody after your job, whether it's a crew chief or a driver or a team mechanic, whatever it is. There's somebody digging, trying to get in."
Stremme would know.
Rising star Brad Keselowski will take over his No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge when the season ends. Stremme, who is 30th in points, is keeping his options open but seems pretty certain he will not be driving at the Cup level in 2010.
He is not panicking, at least not yet, and he is not angry. Stremme said he is cordial with Keselowski and joked "he can come sit in my car, he can race it, whatever he wants."
But the idea of being stuck at home in South Bend, Ind., next February when Daytona rolls around is not something he likes to think about.
"When all your friends go down there to race and you're not racing, that's when it's hard," Stremme said.
Winning is not the only consideration in a sport where on-track results are only part of the equation. Mears has been to Victory Lane as many times over the last three seasons (once) as Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose huge fan base means he is in no danger of losing his job.
Whether a driver's imminent departure places a strain between himself and the rest of the team depends on the circumstances.
Kasey Kahne said his relationship with Sorenson has not changed in the weeks since Richard Petty Motorsports announced it was moving forward without Sorenson when RPM merges with Yates Racing at season's end. The two drivers still talk about their setups, the tracks and strategy, though it rarely turns to the future.
"We're not even sure exactly what we're doing (at RPM)," Kahne said with a laugh. "It's hard to really talk too much about that."
Not all splits are as amicable. Penske Racing only allows Kurt Busch's crew chief, Pat Tryson, in the racing shop once a week after Tryson announced he is joining Michael Waltrip Racing next year.
It's not personal, but with Penske already planning for 2010 and Tryson joining a competitor, there is little gained from allowing him to listen in on the program's plans.
Does playing out the string make things weird? It can. Ryan Newman felt like a "black sheep" after deciding to leave Penske at the end of 2008 to join Tony Stewart's new outfit. The final weeks of his time with Penske were difficult.
"Probably the happiest I've been at the end of the season and rightfully so," he said.
There is a distinct difference, however, between leaving on your own and not being asked back. Newman had a job waiting for him. Mears, Stremme and others - all former drivers for Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates - do not.
It could lead to some sleepless nights.
Until then, they have five more chances to make an impression.
"I still have a lot of value and I belong here," Stremme said. "If it doesn't work out, we'll look at other things."