2006 Ride: No. 25 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2006 Primary Sponsor: GMAC
2006 Owner: Rick Hendrick
2006 Crew Chief: Lance McGrew
2006 Stats: 36 starts, 1 win, 5 top fives, 9 top 10s, 15th in points
High Point: After 106 races behind the wheel of a prized ride at Hendrick Motorsports, Vickers had yet to cash in on the winners’ circle, and heading into Talladega this past October, he was running out of time. Already committed to drive for Toyota the following year, the 23-year-old was still desperate to score a win in the No. 25 car; not just for himself, but for best friend and former car owner Ricky Hendrick, killed in a plane crash two years earlier.
With the laps winding down in a wild race, it appeared Vickers would end up no better than second once again – drafting behind teammate Jimmie Johnson entering the last lap, the two found themselves trailing Dale Earnhardt Jr. entering the backstretch. As Johnson turned to make his move on Junior, Vickers went with him, except he wasn’t fully clear of Johnson as he tried to draft behind him. The two touched, Johnson turned into Junior, and a last-lap melee ensued at the front of the pack. It was a wreck which Vickers was able to drive straight through to claim his first Nextel Cup win.
Low Point: Vickers’s first win was also a curse – the incident with Johnson put him under heavy criticism, with several media and garage members claiming he was too aggressive, using dirty tactics to claim a win he shouldn’t have been awarded. Among the fiercest critics was Johnson himself, and the two drivers’ friendship nearly collapsed; it took nearly two months for the pair to return to normal.
Of course, that’s not the only race that qualifies here; there’s a reason Vickers and Hendrick didn’t work out, and it was simply that performance was never quite up to par. Each year, the youngster would go through an in-season slump that would eliminate him from Chase contention; this year, it happened during the month of May, where Vickers wrecked out of each of his starts, finishing 37th, 41st and 37th respectively. His announcement to leave Hendrick for Team Red Bull came shortly thereafter.
Summary: Vickers’s third and final season with Hendrick was another year chock full of unfulfilled potential. While his three teammates eased into the Chase, Vickers found himself on the outside looking in once again, inconsistency and accidents preventing him from making a serious run at the title. The pressure mounting, Vickers decided he’d had enough, and in June announced his move to Toyota for 2007, choosing not to sign an extension with the No. 25 team.
Ironically, once the announcement was made, it seemed a weight was lifted off Vickers’s shoulders; over the summer, he scored 10 consecutive top-20 performances and rallied back from outside the top 25 to finish the year 15th in points, a strong ending for a team knowing they wouldn’t be together the following season.
2007 Outlook: It’s a whole new ballgame for Vickers in 2007 – not only is he aligned with Toyota, but he’s with a brand new two-car team as Team Red Bull tries its hand at NASCAR. With veteran Doug Richert signed on to lead the way as Vickers’s crew chief, big things will be expected out of the youngest signee in the Toyota camp. Big names Dale Jarrett, Michael Waltrip and Jeremy Mayfield were signed to give the Camry an early boost, but the organization is clearly looking to Vickers to carry the flag years down the road, and he’ll be expected to perform right out of the gate.
Qualifying at Daytona will be key; with no guaranteed starting spot with his team, Vickers will be one of nearly two dozen drivers battling for just eight spots in the 500 field. Should he fail, his team will face an early deficit that’ll be a far cry from anything this driver ever faced while racing for Hendrick.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: B
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