VICKERS BACK IN THE GROOVE

March 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

VICKERS BACK IN THE GROOVE

Three races down in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, with his first top-10 finish in the bag, it seems like business as usual for Red Bull Racing Toyota Camry driver Brian Vickers as he heads to the Bristol Motor Speedway for this weekend’s Jeff Byrd 500.

But, after losing most of the 2010 season recuperating from blood clots that threatened his career, Vickers is savoring every moment of a return to doing what he loves best – racing a stock car.

Getting back in his No. 83 Camry to start the 2011 Sprint Cup season at Daytona had always been his target since being diagnosed with the condition in May of last year, so getting the clearance to race again was huge. Yet, coming so close to losing the thing he’s most passionate about has certainly left its mark on him.

“Going through this is definitely going to change my perspective,” he says. “I think what I went through changed me more personally. It changed who I am and I grew a lot as a person. I still have a lot of growing to do and I am sure there are plenty of people who would point that out, but I definitely took a big step up the ladder through this experience.

“I have no doubt that going through this experience and how it’s changed me personally is going to show up on the race track. My opinion is that it’s going to show up in a better way. I think it’s going to be a benefit to how we perform on and off the racetrack. There may be times when it’s not, but I believe that the perspective and the growth that I’ve had personally is going to be a positive out there on the race track.”

That said, he was looking forward to making noise in NASCAR’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, but ended up making the wrong kind of noise… A 17-car pileup in the early going claimed Vickers, rearranging the right side of his Camry and ending his hopes of a Lazarus-like comeback at the World Center of Racing. The incident left him with mixed emotions.

“It was a very special moment for me,” he said afterward. “To not finish with a car in one piece, not so much…I want to be mad. I want to be angry. I want to be disappointed. But I have to honest with you, I’m having a hard time being that. It sucked being in a crash, but it felt fantastic getting back in a racecar. It felt so good. I can’t tell you how happy I was to be back.”

It didn’t get any better at Phoenix, as an early contretemps with Matt Kenseth relegated him to 30th place at the end. But two weeks ago at Las Vegas, with bad luck leaving him alone and letting him get on with racing, things started to come together. His 10th-place finish there was his first top-10 since Darlington last May. Vickers could see the light at the end of a tunnel, and he was reasonably sure there wasn’t a train behind it.

“Today was finally the good start to our season we have needed,” he said. “We have to keep it up and chip away at the points inch by inch each week. We made the most of everything today and got every drop we could out of the car – the guys did a great job in the pits and with adjustments. Everyone gave 100 percent and that’s all you can ask for.”

With a week off between Vegas and this week’s race at Bristol, Vickers hopped a jet with friends and went out of the country, spending time relaxing at the Red Sea. Off-weekends are rare in NASCAR’s top division, and you take what you can get.

He returns refreshed, with momentum behind him and raring to go at the world’s fastest half-miler – heck, he’s even been having a bit of Twitter fun with reigning champ Jimmie Johnson. With the help of their fans, each has been compiling songs for the other to walk out to at the Bristol driver introductions.

The Tweets have been coming thick and fast, with both guys enjoying getting in some good-natured digs. Take this one from Vickers (@BrianLVickers), for example: JJ, sounds like your getting a little nervous! Keep the submissions coming for JJ guys…Jimmie have you went running to Chad for help yet?

This is definitely a guy who’s relishing being back on the scene, but he’s also enjoying working with his new teammate, Kasey Kahne. The feeling’s mutual and the respect and level of cooperation is obviously high. An example of that came at Phoenix, where Vickers and crew chief Ryan Pemberton adopted Kahne’s Kenny Francis-prepped setup for qualifying and the race.

“We’ve always got along good,” Kahne says of Vickers. “We’ve never really done a whole lot together as far as racing, but we’ve got along good. Brian’s a really good driver, so I feel like we can work together well. I think we can learn a lot from each other and work together as teammates to help each other and to help our company.”

For his part, Vickers welcomes Kahne as a teammate, if only for one season.

“We got along as opponents so I can’t imagine we’re not going to get along as teammates,” Vickers says. “His experience level is going to bring a lot to the table. That’s something Red Bull hasn’t had. I’m not going to get into whether or not he’s a better, more successful, less successful driver — that really doesn’t matter.

“Kasey has experience and depth in the sport. I can lean on him; he can lean on me. When he starts talking about something he’s tried at a particular track or a car setup or something that’s bothering him in the car -– he has the experience to back it up.”

Speaking of experience, Vickers has been with Red Bull Racing since 2007 and seen the team build and grow every year. To him, 2011 looks like a season where the organization is poised to deliver on its promise.

“When I was hired at Red Bull as the first driver, gosh, I was like maybe the fifth or sixth employee,” he recalls. “Literally I walked in the shop and it was just me and a handful of other guys. It’s incredible to watch the team go through everything it’s gone through and grow as much as it has.

“Where we’re at right now, I really believe is as good as we’ve ever been as an organization. From a direction, a culture, a structure, a passion, a drive – I think the enthusiasm within the team on both cars within the race shop in the highest it’s ever been. Having two experienced guys that can lean on each other is the best it’s ever been. Honestly, I’m really excited about 2011 and the growth I’ve seen through the years.”

When it gets right down to it, though, Vickers is still the same guy he was before all this happened.

“When Sunday rolls around I still want to win,” he said.

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