2008 Ride: No. 83 Red Bull Racing Toyota
2008 Sponsor: Red Bull
2008 Owner: Dietrich Mateschitz
2008 Crew Chief: Kevin Hamlin
Stats: 36 races, 0 wins, 3 top fives, 6 top 10s, 1 pole, 19th in points
Best Finish: Second (Pocono – June)
High Point: Following Brian Vickers‘s dismal inaugural season with Red Bull in 2007, the Thomasville, N.C. native appeared to have made a serious error in judgment in making the decision to leave Hendrick Motorsports at the conclusion of 2006. Vickers and his upstart teammate, AJ Allmendinger, struggled mightily to figure out how to make their Toyotas competitive in their first year on the Sprint Cup circuit. For 2007, Vickers failed to qualify for 13 of the 36 events in all – including the season-opening Daytona 500 – and finished 38th in the driver points standings.
However, the 25-year-old, now a five-year Cup veteran, showed in 2008 that it might be prudent to withhold a final judgment on his wisdom in moving from a top-flight Chevrolet powerhouse to an untested new team. Vickers came out of the box at Daytona seemingly reinvigorated during the offseason, first racing himself into the event via an 11th-place finish in the Gatorade Duels before following that up with a very respectable 12th in the Great American Race.
Vickers and his No. 83 team built momentum off that run, continuing to qualify for the next four races of the season without the benefit of a guaranteed starting spot in the race day field. His average finishing position in those events was 21st, more than good enough to secure a spot in the coveted Top 35 for the first time as a Toyota pilot. From then until the season’s finale at Homestead, Vickers and the No. 83 team never looked back; in a what can only be termed “incredible,” they ended up competing in all 36 points races on the Sprint Cup schedule.
It may be true that “you have to crawl before you can walk…” but in Vickers’s case, he graduated from a crawl to a brisk run in just one year!
Let’s put it this way: when you go from 38th to 19th in points, you can color Vickers’s entire 2008 season a HIGH POINT!
Low Point: The whole No. 83 team took one to the chin when their Toyota failed a random post-race inspection following the 32nd race of the year at Martinsville, Va. NASCAR inspectors determined that the sheetmetal used in the construction of the doors, fenders and quarterpanels of their car was too thin. As a result, the sanctioning body levied stiff fines against all of those involved. 150 driver points were taken from Vickers, and owner Mateschitz likewise lost 150 owner points. Crew chief Kevin Hamlin was indefinitely suspended and fined $100,000. Car chief Craig Smokstad was also suspended indefinitely.
Red Bull Team VP & General Manager Jay Frye mitigated the fallout from what had the makings of a major cheating scandal when he, on behalf of the racing organization, accepted full responsibility for the infraction and backed it up with a little “housekeeping” at Red Bull. Nonetheless, the controversy was a distraction that the up-and-coming team certainly could have done without. Nothing like losing your two top guys to make team break stride!
Summary: Right now, the world truly is Vickers’s oyster. The vastly improved Toyota package allowed Vickers, who won the 2003 Nationwide Series championship at age 20, to confirm to both fans and his employers that yes… he can still drive in the “big leagues.”
The vast improvement in performance by Vickers singlehandedly brought legitimacy and respect to Red Bull Racing. He performed solidly behind the wheel, highlighted by a hard–fought second at Pocono in June that was the team’s best ever finish. By the end of the season, he’d collected six top 10s, and Vickers took the “Bull” to the front of the field for 232 laps during the season. The North Carolinian took pretty good care of his equipment as well, only getting involved in three race-ending accidents.
Despite scoring no wins and falling out of Chase eligibility late in the summer, Vickers not only met but exceeded team expectations for 2008. 19 races in, Vickers found himself leaving Chicago 14th in driver points and still in the hunt for a top-12 ranking – only 95 points short of the 12th and final Chase-eligible position to be set following race No. 26 at Richmond.
Team Ranking: There is little doubt that for now, Vickers is the lead guy at Red Bull going into 2009. Stock car newcomer Scott Speed will be Vickers’s stablemate, and will still be orientating himself to where the restroom facilities are at the various venues on the Sprint Cup Series.
The current pecking order was made clear when management swapped drivers for the season finale at Homestead-Miami – the team was more confident that Vickers would fare better than Speed at racing the struggling No. 84 (now 82) Red Bull Toyota into the Top 35 in owner points. That was a successful strategy that has since been found unnecessary due to the folding of other Top-35 teams – which would have guaranteed Speed’s car a Top-35 spot in the team owner rankings anyway.
2009 Outlook: Vickers could very well be the “surprise” Chase contender following the “regular” season-ending race at Richmond in the second week of September. Having improved 19 spots from 2007 to 2008, moving up another seven spots in points this coming season should not be an insurmountable task. Ryan Pemberton, formerly of Michael Waltrip Racing, will assume the crew chief duties in 2009 and should not only make a seamless transition, but continue the upward performance trends for Vickers that he accomplished with MWR’s young and talented Toyota driver, David Reutimann, in 2008.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: B
2007 Grade: C-
2008 Grade: B+