I’m blaming it on the stress of turning 30! That’s the only way to explain how I could do what I did last week when I wrote an article about the NEXTEL Cup’s sophomore class. In that article I talked mostly about the turnaround Scott Riggs and his team have made from last season, but also briefly mentioned Kasey Kahne’s bad luck, Gaughan’s dismissal from the No. 77, and Scott Wimmer’s mid-pack runs. It took me an entire week to realize that I totally forgot to mention Brian Vickers.
What might be even worse than me forgetting is that, after being posted on The Frontstretch for over a week, no one emailed me to mention my blunder in this article. That leads me to wonder: Does anyone actually read my stuff, or have fans simply forgotten Vickers too?
It would be a shame if either of those were true, but particularly shameful if we’ve all actually forgotten about Vickers. He is, after all, the 2003 Busch Series champion, earning 21 top-10s, 13 top-5s and three victories in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. After his impressive season in the Busch Series, beating out veterans like David Green, Ron Hornaday and Jason Keller for the title, Vickers made the move to NEXTEL Cup in 2004, joining Kahne, Gaughan, Wimmer and Riggs in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year race.
Vickers made five starts in the series in 2003, getting a jump on his Cup career by finishing out the season in the No. 25 UAW-Dephi Chevrolet. In those races, Vickers was most impressive in his qualifying runs, qualifying fourth, second, second and third in the final four races. However, it wasn’t the debut he was looking for, earning just one top-15 finish with a 13th place run at Phoenix.
When he made the full-time jump to Cup in 2004, the racing world was expecting great things from Vickers, but the light was quickly stolen from him when fellow Busch Series competitor Kahne became the hot rookie. Had it not been for Kahne, however, Vickers would have been the top rookie in the final season point standings (however, Gaughan would have won Rookie of the Year honors, one point over Vickers). Vickers finished the 2004 season with two poles, four top-10s, and a 22nd place finish in the final point standings.
This year has already been a little rough on Vickers. He earned back-to-back 21st place finishes and Daytona and California, and then his involvement in a wreck at Las Vegas, in which Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 8 Chevrolet got into the back of Vickers ending both of their days, left him with a 43rd place finish. That pushed Vickers back to 30th in the point standings.
You would have thought that being taken out early by Earnhardt Jr. would have made Vickers stick in my memory – in all of our memories – but apparently some of us forgot.
Maybe that’s why Vickers put on such an impressive showing last weekend in the Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. While the story of the race and all of the stories of the weekend have been about the impressive weekend sweep by Carl Edwards, Vickers quietly made his own statement. Vickers was wasn’t involved in the first lap wreck that took out several cars, including Jeff Gordon, but he did make contact with Hamilton Jr.’s No. 32 Chevrolet on the first lap.
With very minor damage, Vickers soldiered on and earned the best finish of his career, ending up in the sixth place and moving up from 30th to 22nd in the point standings.
I have had the opportunity to meet Vickers twice – once as a fan and once as a journalist. In 2002, when the Busch and NEXTEL Cup (then Winston) drivers came to Kansas Speedway, Vickers was one of several drivers taking part in “Fan Fest”. While his Cup counterparts sat at big tables with long lines, Vickers and several of his lesser-known Busch competitors sat at one big round table. The only driver who actually had a line at the time was Jamie McMurray, but the Joplin, Missouri native had just been signed to driver for Chip Ganassi, so he was big time (Casey Mears also sat at the same table, with absolutely no line). At the time, Vickers was driving for his own team, competing in just 21 races and earning only one top-10. I remember wondering if he would ever get a chance to show his talent.
Less than a year later, when Ricky Hendrick decided to retire from racing, he put Vickers into the seat of his No. 5 GMAC Chevrolet. He shocked many by that move, and everyone thought he had to be crazy because Vickers really hadn’t really shown that much on the track. But Ricky Hendrick fought his dad and everyone else to put Vickers in the car. He believed in him. It didn’t take long for the rest of the world to believe in Vickers, too.
The second time I met Vickers was in 2003, in his hauler following practice for the Mr. Goodcents 300 at the Kansas Speedway. He was just coming off a string of four consecutive top-10 finishes, including two victories, and was optimistic about his season. In our interview we discussed any pressure he might be feeling by team owner Ricky Hendrick about racing at Kansas, since Hendrick did pick up his only Craftsman Truck Series victory at that track in it’s inaugural race in 2001. Vickers told me that Ricky had been teasing him about it, but there was no more or less pressure than any other race. That weekend ended up ending his top-10 streak and Vickers finished 32nd, 52 laps down.
Vickers was unable to reach victory lane after that, but his four top-10 finishes in the final six races were just what he needed to claim the championship for himself and team owner Ricky Hendrick.
So entering into his rookie season in the NEXTEL Cup the following season had to be stressful, but Vickers handled it like the champion he is. Things weren’t perfect, and Vickers earned just four top-10 finishes with no top-5s, but he also earned two poles (Kahne, the only other rookie to win a pole in 2004, earned four).
Vickers took his share of blows on the track in 2004, but none harder than the one he took off the track, on Sunday, October 24th. That was the day that he lost his friend, team owner and spotter, Ricky Hendrick, to a terrible plane crash that also claimed the life of nine other people. Vickers had been expecting to hear Ricky’s voice guiding him around the track at Martinsville that day, but he was told there was a delay and Ricky would not be there. It wasn’t until after the race-a race his teammate Jimmie Johnson won-that Vickers would find out the horrible truth. For Vickers, this wasn’t the first time he had lost one of his best friends. Vickers was also close to Adam Petty, before his untimely death in May 2000 at New Hampshire took him from us all.
The following weekend, the teams of Hendrick Motorsports headed out to compete at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Before the weekend’s events, the drivers and crew chiefs held a press conference, in which they discussed their thought and feelings about the events. All of the drivers spoke at length to the reporters. All, that is, except for Vickers. He sat quiet through most of the press conference, and spoke only a short time. But he didn’t have to speak. We all knew how he felt. We all felt for him.
Instead, Vickers let his performance on the track speak for him. I, probably like everyone else who watches NASCAR, was pulling for Vickers to win that race. He didn’t, the victory went to Johnson again. But Vickers wasn’t far behind, finishing seventh in what would be his best finish of the season, and of his career-until his fifth last weekend at Atlanta.
The celebration in victory lane led to what I consider the best image of NASCAR in 2004, and perhaps the image that truly defines what NASCAR is. Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet may have been the first across the finish line, but he wasn’t the only one in victory lane. He was joined in victory lane by Hendrick teammates Vickers, Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon. The four hugged, laughed, cried, and, in honor of Ricky Hendrick, all turned their hats backwards. And for the first time in a week, we all got to see Vickers smile.
I don’t know about you, but that image itself brought tears to my eyes. This man lost so much one week before-his best friend, his spotter, his team owner, and the guy who believed in Vickers more than anyone else. But now, he was finally able to smile.
With a few months off to heal in the offseason, Vickers seems to be back to his old self-or at least as much as possible, given that his life will never be the same. But last weekend at Atlanta, we saw the drive and determination that earned Vickers a ride with Hendrick, and earned him a 2003 Busch Series Championship. And his faith in his team and himself is evident.
“It’s awesome how well everyone has come together,” said Vickers following last weekend’s race. “I really, really have a good feeling about this year. I think we have a good chance.”
With a smaller rookie class in 2005 (Kyle Busch, Travis Kvapil and Eric McClure) a lot of attention will still be paid to the 2004 rookies. Many are anxious to see if Kahne can recover what has started out to look like the dreaded sophomore slump, or if Riggs, Wimmer and Vickers can learn from their rookie mistakes and break out.
Vickers has already come out swinging, determined to get that first victory for his team, himself, but more importantly, for the memory of the guy who gave him this opportunity, Ricky Hendrick. I have a feeling that by season’s end, we will not be able to forget about Brian Vickers.
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