Casey Mears will not return to NASCAR's most star-studded team next season, Hendrick Motorsports announced today, opening the door for veteran Mark Martin to drive the No. 5 Chevy in 2009.
Martin, a likely future member of NASCAR's Hall of Fame, would join Hendrick's lineup of four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson and the sport's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Martin was not mentioned in Hendrick's statement announcing Mears will not be back for the final year of his contract in 2009, but ESPN has reported the four-time Sprint Cup runner-up will drive for Hendrick next year, either full-time or part-time.
"We've put a ton of emphasis on the No. 5 program," team owner Rick Hendrick said in the statement. "It's been a team effort, and Casey has worked as hard as anyone to help us improve. We've tested more than we ever have, but the results just haven't come."
Mears' pending release wasn't the only contractual development Friday. Greg Biffle, one of the top prospective free agents, agreed to a three-year extension with Roush Fenway Racing.
Biffle finished second in the championship in 2005 but has failed to make the Chase three out of four years. He is seventh this season.
"I have to admit, one of the key elements was the addition we made with Robbie Reiser," who moved from being Matt Kenseth's crew chief to general manager, Biffle said. "I felt like we were making steps in the right direction by continuing to add engineers and people to go beyond just the crew chief and the nuts and bolts of the car, technically."
This was considered a make-or-break season for Mears, the 30-year-old nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears. He moved within Hendrick Motorsports from the hard-luck No. 25 team to the No. 5 car, which made the Chase the past two years with Kyle Busch.
Through 16 races, Mears has one top-five finish and he ranks 24th in the standings. He has won once in 1 1/2 seasons with Hendrick, at Charlotte in May 2007.
"It's tough, and that team obviously expected to run similar to what we did last year," said Busch, who has won five times this year with Joe Gibbs Racing. "But really, Hendrick Motorsports has not run up to what they were last year."
Mears should have options for 2009. Among the rides open is a new fourth car that Richard Childress Racing plans to field.