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The Yellow Stripe: Is Brian Vickers For Real?

In the three years since my job and NASCAR crossed paths, changing my sports-watching life forever, one of my absolute favorite moments – of many good times – came at Talladega. Regular readers of my column will be aware of my love for the 2.66-mile behemoth of a track in Alabama, as evidenced by an article on the subject earlier this season; so, it’s not surprising that one of my fondest memories came at the series’ largest track.

The race in question was the fourth of the 2006 Chase. David Gilliland took the pole, with RYR teammate Dale Jarrett alongside. Two cautions (for debris) in the first 134 laps lulled the pack into a false sense of security; but just five laps later, Jimmie Johnson got into the back of Carl Edwards, causing the No. 99 to wiggle. That’s when the fun began, as a smoking 14-car wreck ensued that took out no less than three Chasers. Then, with 22 laps to go in the race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled low and took the lead, holding that position through one final caution until the white flag lap.

That’s when things got interesting. Headed down the backstretch on the last lap, Johnson got a run on Earnhardt and wrenched the wheel left to go past. Brian Vickers, who had led 16 laps and was riding third in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, attempted to follow his teammate; but he misjudged, and clipped the No. 48 right into the No. 8 – sending both cars spinning into the infield. With the field frozen by the caution flag, the race was over, and Vickers had won it in rather contentious style.

Only Vickers can truly know what he thought in that split second; but based on the TV evidence, I think you can make an argument for the move being both deliberate and accidental.

“It’s absolutely uncalled for, completely out of line,” a livid Johnson said immediately afterward. “I’m racing for a championship, OK? The only way to win [the race] was to crash us both.”

But in marginally more conciliatory style (remember, they were still teammates at this stage) Johnson went on to say, “I don’t think Vickers meant to do it, but he did it. He shouldn’t even think about putting any of us in that situation. It’s ridiculous.” Crew chief Chad Knaus was more forthright in his assessment. “It wasn’t bad judgment, it was lack of talent,” Knaus said. “I just don’t think Vickers has the talent to understand what he has underneath him.”

Regardless of all the irate post-race words and the infamous YouTube video the incident spawned, the record books will record in cold, hard, black and white that Vickers won his first – and so far only – Sprint Cup race on October 8, 2006 at Talladega Superspeedway. The win was his, and no one can ever take that away. But the reality is, until the second win comes along that first victory will have something of a hollow feel. Vickers won, yes, but did he win going outside the bounds of what the sport considered proper racin’? In what is a very self-regulating business, NASCAR has its customs, and there will always be questions about the methods in which Vickers achieved his maiden victory.

But a second checkered flag will do more than just validate his first win; it will validate the entire organization Vickers now drives for. After what can be described as a challenging first year in NASCAR for Team Red Bull, 2008 has been as positive as 2007 was disastrous. Vickers has embodied the transition from laughing stock to serious contender, and after a fourth-place run at Michigan sits 16th in points – a mere 97 markers back from that critical Chase transfer spot.

The Thomasville, N.C., native praised his equipment following his latest performance Sunday, saying, “I’m real proud of our Red Bull Racing Team again today… a great effort by everyone again, and we probably had the best car on long runs.” He did argue, however, that the call by NASCAR to put his car behind Mark Martin‘s after a late caution cost him dearly. Claiming he pulled ahead of Martin long before the yellow came out, that extra car to pass made the difference in what turned out to be a green/white… yellow finish.

“We had tires, and probably could have had a shot at winning this race,” Vickers said. “But that track position with just a few laps to go basically took us out of it. Mistakes get made by us all… it’s just frustrating.”

The very fact that Vickers was so visibly disappointed with a fourth-place finish says a lot about a number of key things: His car, his confidence in his vehicle and, just as importantly, his belief in his team. The turnaround in Red Bull in such a short time can be broken down to a number of varied factors. Two critical components, however, have been Jay Frye and Kevin Hamlin.

Frye joined the team in January as General Manager, filling a position that had been vacant since August. His wise hand and vast repertoire of knowledge in building the former two-car operation of Ginn Racing has been invaluable. Hamlin, a veteran crew chief with 17 years experience, won races with Dale Earnhardt Sr. back in the day, so it seems fairly safe to assume he is a man with a plan. These two gentlemen have provided a platform from which Vickers can display his undisputed talents. A non-scientific survey within the Sprint Cup garage would suggest that Vickers is among the 10 best pure racers on circuit – and that’s a massive compliment. Let’s not forget he’s been racing and winning at the top level of motorsports since he was just 17 years old; unless Joey Logano wins the Nationwide Series championship next year, Vickers will remain the youngest ever (at 20) to win a NASCAR touring series title when he captured the 2003 Busch Series crown.

Vickers’ chance to take the seat with one of the big boys of NASCAR came thanks to Ricky Hendrick. As 2002 wound down, Vickers’ independently funded team in the Busch Series lost a key sponsor, and it was the son of owner Rick Hendrick who noticed. As Vickers puts it, “Ricky and I struck up a dialogue, and eventually he decided he wanted me to drive his racecars.”

The widely documented end to Vickers’s career with HMS came four years later, at the conclusion of the 2006 season. To many, the youngster was showing signs of both stupidity and immaturity in signing for a completely new team with a brand new manufacturer; but Vickers knew his decision was not a short-term fix. He was never going to be Numero Uno at HMS – just take a look at the cast of characters he was surrounded by. At Red Bull, however, Vickers knew he could be the man around which a team was built.

But building from scratch proved far easier on paper than on the racetrack. In 2007, Vickers failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 and went on to miss 13 of the 36 races. His fifth-place finish in the Coke 600 was Toyota’s first top five, and was the high-water mark on a season that was the very definition of a learning experience. A crash and subsequent 42nd-place finish at the Ford 400 in Homestead put a neat little button on a horrible season last November.

2008 has been a different story, however. A creditable 12th place in the Daytona 500, having squeaked in via a Gatorade 150, kickstarted a season that has included three top fives (second at Pocono, fourth at Michigan, fifth at Talladaga) and a ninth-place run in Atlanta among the highlights. The 61 laps led at Charlotte didn’t show up in his 42nd-place finish, but the way Vickers tore around the 1.5-mile circuit spoke volumes for how he’s run this year.

So, is Brian Vickers for real? Based on what we’ve seen so far this year, the answer would have to be yes. Can Vickers surprise everyone and make the Chase? Given the strength of the competition, the overall evidence would suggest that’s a little too much to ask. But it’s not beyond the realm of possibility and that, given where Team Red Bull was in 2007, represents a vast improvement. At 24 years of age and with five years of Cup racing under his belt, there is every reason to believe the future is bright for Vickers. And if the improvement continues, both the wins and the Chase spots for him will come soon enough.

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