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Despite questions surrounding health, Vickers returns for full season
Brian Vickers is a talented race car driver. We’ve known that since he won the then-Busch Series championship with Hendrick Motorsports in 2003. We were reminded of it again last July when he stunned the Sprint Cup Series with a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It was the first for a part-time driver in the sport’s top division since Trevor Bayne pulled off his upset win in the 2011 Daytona 500, and just the third since 2009. It was the first on a non-restrictor plate track since Jamie McMurray won in Charlotte in the fall of 2002.
That left Vickers back in the position to rebuild his career. Following the win, Michael Waltrip Racing solidified a deal with longtime sponsor Aaron’s that brought Vickers back to full-time participation in the Cup Series this season. It was a sunshine and rainbows moment, closing the road to redemption after prior illness and the closure of Red Bull Racing, which left Vickers without a full-time gig.
If only the fairy tale could have wrapped up so nicely. Last fall, the medical issue Vickers faced once before — blood clots — returned, forcing him out of the final four races of 2013.
The move, combined with the real-life health scare, disrupted the rhythm of this Cup Series transition. With Mark Martin off to Stewart-Haas Racing filling in for an injured Tony Stewart, Vickers was set to finish the season in MWR’s No. 55. It was a beautiful symphony of opportunity for him to get as comfortable as possible before the pressure of points and Chase qualification in 2014 kicked in.
Instead, Vickers sat on the sidelines.
“If there’s anything to be positive about with (this) news it’s that this is only a temporary setback,” he said in October. “The timing for this is never good, but I’m glad we’ll get it out of the way now and be ready to run for a championship with the Aaron’s Dream Machine in 2014.”
Undoubtedly, Vickers had decent timing on the matter, because he’ll be eligible to compete when the season begins. But there is little doubt that this second instance of blood clots is raising more and more red flags about long-term commitments to his racing activities — from potential sponsors to potential new teams, including his current one.
Fortunately, the blood clots aren’t explicitly dangerous to Vickers when he’s in the car. It’s the medication to break them apart that creates a danger of internal bleeding should he be involved in a serious incident. Vickers’ time away allowed him to take the medication as prescribed and returning only when treatment was complete.
Vickers also lost more than just seat time last season. The original plan when MWR signed him to the full-time deal was that longtime MWR crew chief Rodney Childers would be on board. But Childers’ profile was rising in the sport — he was on the pit box for Vickers’ New Hampshire win — and when Stewart-Haas Racing came calling in need of a crew chief for Kevin Harvick, Childers took the deal. He was let go by MWR just days later. Competition director Scott Miller stepped in to run the No. 55 in Childers’ absence, but in December the team’s lead engineer, Billy Scott, was promoted to the role. This season will mark his first as a crew chief in the Cup Series.
Vickers, who played a small role as a pawn in that Chase scandal last fall at Richmond, also lost a teammate and second source of on-track information when sponsor NAPA Auto Parts officially cut ties with the organization. Martin Truex Jr. was forced to find a new ride, leaving Jeff Burton as a part-timer in the newly christened No. 66 at MWR. Only Vickers and Clint Bowyer will run full-time for the title.
After years of growth, MWR is again left scrambling to ensure it remains a competitive, well-funded entity. Will that lead to more pressure on Vickers to perform? Likely.
Adding to the concern is Vickers’ propensity for tearing up equipment. In his 17 starts in 2013, Vickers finished only 12 of them. Four of the DNFs were due to crashes — a rate that, if extrapolated over the course of a 36-race season, would be obnoxiously high.
Vickers has shown improvement and increased on-track maturity through most of the stops in his career. He’ll need to double down on commitments to those ideals, stay healthy and keep away from mid-race trips to the garage if he wants his full-time gig to stick.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Vickers has proven to be very fast in spurts and has been able to run near the front in equipment that other people could not perform in,” a competitor says. “He is a very humble person and will do whatever the team needs to get better. He won’t take crap from other drivers as we saw with (Tony) Stewart at Sonoma a couple of years ago. Vickers also fits in well from a fan base perspective. He’s big in the extreme sports hobbies that attract fans.”
“The blood clot problem is a big concern,” a rival crew chief says. “Whether they can claim that they were explainable and there was an obvious reason, it still doesn’t eliminate the fact that they happen. Try as you might, another clot could show up again and then a team would need to find a replacement driver. That’s hard for a team, especially at the Cup level, to make that kind of commitment when the driver could be out of the game at any point in time.”
“He’ll show flashes, but he tears up a lot of equipment,” one media member says. “And I worry about this blood clot issue. I mean, if it keeps happening — once I can understand, but a second time? How does a team convince a sponsor to invest in a driver who’s health is iffy?”
Looking at Checkers: Since the inception of the CoT, Vickers’ six Michigan starts have been fruitful, to the tune of one win, two top 5s and five top 10s.
Pretty Solid Pick: Atlanta has been kind as well, with a 10th-place average finish in his last seven starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: His last four starts at Bristol line up like this: fifth, fourth, eighth and fourth. Betcha didn’t realize that.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Phoenix, where he’s recorded only one top-10 finish (fifth) in his 14 Cup starts.
Insider Tip: Vickers stepped up and delivered in his “something to prove” period. Now that he’s got the job, will the results hang steady, or will he revert back to his wrecking ways?
No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
Owners: Michael Waltrip/Rob Kauffman/Johnny Harris
Crew Chief: Billy Scott
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 12th (2009)
Hometown: Thomasville, N.C.
Born: Oct. 24, 1983
Photos courtesy of Michael Waltrip Racing
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro