No. 22 Brian Vickers

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2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown

2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 83 Red Bull Toyota
Team: Red Bull Racing
Owner: Dietrich Mateschitz
Crew Chief: Ryan Pemberton

Years with current team: 5
Under contract through: 2012
Best points finish: 12th (2009)

Hometown: Thomasville, N.C.
Born: October 24, 1983

2011 Spin
After a thrilling entrance into the 2009 Chase, Brian Vickers and his Red Bull Racing team had their sights set on a return to the playoffs in 2010 — but that was before fate intervened. Just 11 races into last season, Vickers was hospitalized with blood clots in his lungs and left leg. A pulmonary embolism caused by a hole in his heart would keep the 26-year old out of the No. 83 the remainder of the season.

Now, following a nine-month absence after recovering from open-heart surgery, Vickers is set to return to racing. “(Doctors) gave me full clearance for next year,” Vickers optimistically stated during a visit to Bristol Motor Speedway in August. “I will be back in (2011). I’m real excited about that. They feel I’m probably in the best shape of my life.”

But what shape will the team he was forced to leave be in when he makes his return?

Vickers will encounter a familiar face in crew chief Ryan Pemberton, who guided him to his first Chase berth in ’09 and to three top 10s in his brief, incomplete performance in 2010. Beyond that, there are plenty of new faces he’ll find in the Red Bull shop.

Gone is teammate Scott Speed, which isn’t much of a loss after another year of struggles, with Kasey Kahne hired to replace him. The addition of a teammate like Kahne in normal circumstances would be considered a welcomed addition, but this is a one and done deal for Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis, as both move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012. That will put continued instability and distraction into a Red Bull team that already had its share in 2010. The two-car organization combined for only three top 10s in Vickers’ absence, a rocky merry-go-round of driver disappointments that raise serious questions as to how quickly a rebound can occur.

With Vickers likely to be a bit rusty after a prolonged period away from the sport and Kahne’s departure already set in stone, look for this year to be another rebuilding one for Vickers and a No. 83 team that once had a bright future ahead of it. Once he gets in a groove, Vickers could again compete for a win here or there, but a return to Chase form so quickly appears to be a tall order.

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Vickers’ return — he missed most of the season because of a medical problem involving blood clots that required heart surgery to correct — carries with it some uncertainty. One rival thinks the presence of Kenny Francis as teammate Kasey Kahne’s crew chief will have a positive effect on the whole Team Red Bull operation. “Francis will bring a lot to that whole operation, Brian included,” he says. “Vickers can drive a car as loose as anyone. He’s got a lot of talent. We’ll have to see how the time off affected him. It’s really a shame because, a year ago, it seemed as if he was coming into his own.”

Another crew chief says, “I don’t think the layoff is going to be a problem. Brian’s still young (27), he’s won races, he’s made the Chase (2009), and he’s dedicated to what he does for a living. He had a tough break. He’ll be back.”

2010 Stats
Starts: 11
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 0
Top 10s: 3
Poles: 0
Laps Led: 27
Laps Completed: 3,510
Lead Lap Finishes: 6
Bonus Points: 15
Races Led: 3
Average Start: 21.6
Average Finish: 20.0
Final Points Standing: 40th

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<p> Brian Vickers missed a large part of last season, but returns to NASCAR competition with a clean bill&nbsp; of health in 2011. Vickers slots in at No. 22 in Athlon Sports' Top 30 Driver Countdown.</p>