One final lap on NASCAR’s fastest superspeedway. That’s all that stood between a jubilant Jimmie Johnson and Victory Lane Sunday, a signature win destined to get him back in the championship Chase. For Brian Vickers running behind him, he could have seen an opportunity lying ahead, too – a chance to perhaps write his name on a Nextel Cup trophy for the first time in 107 starts. Either way, it looked like nothing could go wrong as the Hendrick cars, ranked second and third, barreled down the back straightaway at 200 mph, both with runs that would push them in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and clearly win the race for one of them.
Then, the front bumper of Vickers touched the back bumper of Johnson, and the speeds at Talladega could scarcely compare with the quickness through which the world of Hendrick Motorsports promptly imploded.
Six months ago, I wrote a story titled “Cruel Finish” about how Vickers was robbed of his first victory at Talladega in the spring. Let’s flash back to that moment: Vickers, putting himself in perfect position over the race’s final laps, had vaulted himself into the lead with teammate Johnson pushing him on his back bumper. All they had to do was stay in line over the final 2.66 miles, and Vickers would have been standing in Victory Lane showered in champagne, smiles mixed with tears as the young star reminded us of lives lost in that Hendrick helicopter tragedy of nearly two years ago, including best friend and former team owner Ricky Hendrick. The monkey of a winless streak finally off his back, the storyline heading into Talladega this October could just as easily have been how all four Hendrick drivers, not three, were racing hard in the Chase for the Championship this year.
But teammates were not destined to work together on that day. Pulling out with a full head of steam, Johnson blew by him with help and went on to win the race. Afterwards, he was hardly apologetic, claiming he owed it to his sponsors to do everything he could to post the victory. It wasn’t a team sport for Hendrick at that moment – it was every man for himself.
Well, that last-lap pass was the time of momentum builder that sent Johnson’s team over the top – and Vickers’s team over the edge. The No. 25 car crashed out of the next three races, and by June Vickers saw his chances for the Chase disappear – as well as his desire to keep racing with Hendrick. Opting out of his contract, Vickers was on his way to a new opportunity with a new team, while the other three men in the Hendrick stable were well on their way to battling for a championship.
The move to switch teams for 2007, though, didn’t mean Vickers lost his desire for gaining a victory for his fallen friend and an organization responsible for jumpstarting his career in Nextel Cup. Yet, since that announcement back about four months ago it appears the other Hendrick drivers look at him as little more than someone still on the team merely to help them succeed. Between Jeff Gordon‘s criticism towards Vickers at New Hampshire a few weeks ago, when he raced the No. 24 car hard for position late in the race, and Johnson’s public outcry against him this Sunday, it’s clear they view Vickers as fourth man on the totem pole in their own personal pecking order. With the public announcement this week that the youngster is now getting shut out of team meetings within the own organization he works for, it’s amazing Vickers has still been able to remain even casual friends with some of these guys off the track – because they’re clearly not doing him any favors on it.
Still, despite every reason to turn his back on an organization that had turned his back on him, in the last lap of a race in which he clearly had a chance to win, Vickers simply stayed in line and tried to help his teammate win the race. Unfortunately, he made a simple mistake, a bump in the wrong place that sent Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. into the grass and Vickers towards a win he’d lost through bad luck several other times in his three-year career. In the end, it was a desire to help a team member, the very thing Hendrick team members had criticized Vickers for, that caused the crash which won Vickers the race.
Afterwards, Johnson was livid. But it’s Vickers who should be livid with how the Hendrick organization has treated him after four loyal years of service.