Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 15, 2013

Vickers Tops The Big Boys At Loudon

A NOTE TO READERS: As expected, this post is one day later than usual due to a late Sunday evening return from the NASCAR race at Loudon.

The public address announcer at New Hampshire Motor Speedway couldn’t go twenty minutes last weekend without declaring NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series “the most competitive racing series in the world.” Unfortunately no amount of hyperbole blared repeatedly over loudspeakers can disguise the reality that stock car racing’s premier series is made up of a handful of elite perennial contenders and a lot of other teams that play the role of extras on a Hollywood back lot. They are useful for filling out the crowd scenes, but rarely have speaking parts in the final cut.

For all of the repeatedly announced competitiveness, over the last two decades just four ownership teams have accounted for 17 of the 20 Sprint Cup champions. Thanks to the dominance of Jeff Gordon in the late ‘90s and Jimmie Johnson a decade later, Hendrick Motorsports has won ten titles. Joe Gibbs Racing has three championships, and Richard Childress Racing and Roush-Fenway Racing each have two. Even when one of the elite teams fails to claim the Cup outright their dominating presence is still felt. Stewart-Haas Racing won its only title in 2011, but driver and team co-owner Tony Stewart used to drive for Gibbs and Stewart-Haas gets its engines and substantial technical support from Hendrick.

This season there are 22 ownership teams running 42 cars full-time and another 3 on a part-time schedule, plus 4 additional teams that can each only afford to run their single car part-time. So while the 49 cars that fill the garages at each weekly stop on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup calendar may indeed be competitive, they manifestly are not all equally so. NASCAR rules allow a single ownership team to field a maximum of four cars. Hendrick Motorsports alone has the deep pockets needed to keep four Chevys on the starting grid each and every week. In theory every driver who races full-time has a chance to accumulate enough points through the first 26 races to become one of those competing through the final 10 events for the Sprint Cup itself. Yet it’s no surprise that after Sunday’s cumbersomely-named Camping World RV Sales 301 at the mile oval in Loudon, 8 of the 10 drivers leading the season-long standings race for one of the four elite ownership teams.

But while the resources of NASCAR’s upper crust so outstrip those of the riff-raff in the lesser garages that results over an entire season may seem preordained, each individual race is its own event. Within that much smaller universe, sometimes the unexpected can happen; sometimes dreams can come true. So it was Sunday, when a driver who has both shared the penthouse view of the elite teams and known racing homelessness as a driver without a ride, took the checkered flag in a car whose sponsor aptly named it the Aaron’s Dream Machine.

It was a decade ago that 19-year old Brian Vickers appeared ready to ascend to the summit of stock car racing. Vickers started racing go karts before his tenth birthday, and by 2003 had run a family owned car in NASCAR’s top developmental series for two seasons. When finances forced his father Clyde Vickers to fold his one-car team, Brian was hired by Hendrick Motorsports to continue in what is now the Nationwide Series, behind the wheel of the #5 GMAC Chevrolet. He won three Nationwide Series races that year, and became the youngest driver ever to claim a title in any of NASCAR’s three main series.

That success led to Vickers getting a full-time ride for Hendrick in the Sprint Cup series beginning in 2004. Driving the #25 Ditech Chevy, he won two poles and had four top-tens in his rookie season. He followed that with ten top-ten finishes in 2005 and his first Sprint Cup win in 2006. But all was not peaceful in the Hendrick garage, and before the 2006 season was half over Vickers announced that he would leave at the end of the year. He moved to Red Bull Racing, where after a slow start he gradually produced steadily improving results. In 2009 he won his second Sprint Cup race, and made the field for the Chase for the Championship, edging Kyle Busch for the final spot by a mere eight points.

Just when it seemed like Vickers might be about to realize his obvious potential, his world was turned upside down. Early in 2010 he was diagnosed with life-threatening blood clots in his legs and lungs, and suddenly driving a race car was of little import. Ultimately he underwent two surgeries to repair a hole in his heart and to insert a stent in a vein in his left leg. The lengthy recovery cost Vickers the 2010 season, and though he was back behind the wheel the following year by the end of 2011 the under-financed Red Bull team was shut down.

Left without a ride for the 2012 season, he was forced to resort to lobbying the owners of lesser teams for a chance to fill in for an injured driver. Michael Waltrip Racing put him behind the wheel of the #55 Toyota at Bristol, and when he ran well offered him what amounted to a ride-sharing arrangement with Waltrip and Mark Martin, both of whom are semi-retired.

After three years of health scares and part-time employment Vickers moved back to the Nationwide Series this season to drive full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing, while continuing his part-time arrangement in the Sprint Cup Series with Waltrip. While the job with Gibbs has provided him with some badly needed stability, there is no doubt that his focus has been on returning full-time to NASCAR’s top series.

He took a giant step toward achieving that goal on Sunday. He went a lap down early in the race after being penalized because a crew member left a wrench on the deck lid during a pit stop. But as the laps wound down all 90,000 in the grandstands could see that the #55 was clearly the fastest car on the track. Running second, he closed steadily on leader Tony Stewart lap after lap, finally catching him with just 16 of the race’s 301 times around the oval remaining. Vickers quickly pulled away and appeared headed for certain victory, until a late caution brought the field together for one final restart with just 2 laps remaining.

As the cars accelerated across the granite start/finish line at Loudon, Vickers and Stewart in the first row were joined by Kyle Busch, who was in third place. They swept three-wide into the first turn, a dangerous alignment on the relatively flat curves of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. A single wrong move by any of the three could have sent all of them into the wall. Instead all three held their nerve and as the trio emerged from turn two onto the back stretch it was Vickers who first edged in front, and then pulled away to victory.

As a part-time driver Vickers has no chance to make the Chase this season, and a full-time ride for next year is not yet guaranteed. However Michael Waltrip appears ready to put Vickers behind the wheel every Sunday if Aaron’s, Inc. will agree to continue its sponsorship of the car. Having their corporate logo in victory lane no doubt makes the job of convincing them to do so considerably easier. NASCAR’s top series is still dominated by the small handful of elite teams. But on Sunday Brian Vickers turned in a performance that announced to the sport’s fans that he is back, and ready to start making the competitiveness of the Sprint Cup Series more than just a sound bite.

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