Team Penske struck a winning combination in 1988 with the new Nigel Bennett-designed Penske PC17 chassis and debut of the Ilmor-built Chevrolet V8 engine. The Chevrolet Indy V8 quickly became a successful competitor to the established Cosworth V8, and Mears captured his fourth Indianapolis 500 pole position with a four-lap average of 219.198 m.p.h. Teammates Danny Sullivan and Al Unser qualified in the second and third positions, making Team Penske the first team to "sweep" the Front Row in qualifying for the “500.”

Saturday thunderstorms on race weekend washed away the accumulated rubber on the track, and Mears and his team would quickly realize at the start of the race that handling conditions were much different than what they prepared for. Danny Sullivan took the early lead and dominated the first half of the race. Mears and his team adjusted his car's setup throughout the race, although at one point, he was two laps down from race leader Sullivan. But Mears’ incremental changes improved the handling, and he quickly improved his position while Sullivan's car handling started to decline, resulting in a crash on Lap 101. Now with the fastest car in the field, Mears controlled the second half of the race, leading 89 laps, and captured his third "500."