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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Many Drivers Looking For a Breakout Year, But My Money’s on Vickers

With Speedweeks in the rearview mirror, there are 35 races ahead, and almost anything can happen. Probably at some point, just about all of it will happen – the good, the bad and the ugly. The eye of the media is on a pair of young drivers; 18-year-old phenom Joey Logano, known as “Sliced Bread-” as in “the best thing since” and his Rookie of the Year rival, 26-year-old Scott Speed, the toenail polish-wearing Formula 1 defector.

There are others under the microscope as well. Three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is trying to win a fourth straight title – something no other driver has done. The pressure is on Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch as the favorites to knock Johnson off the top spot. As always, fans are wondering if Dale Earnhardt Jr. will ever live up to the over-the-top expectations they have put on him. Who will toss the naysayers aside and shine this year? Probably several drivers at one time or another. But there is one driver in particular who I think will have a breakout year. His name isn’t Logano or Speed, or even Busch or Earnhardt.

His name is Brian Vickers.

That’s right. While Vickers was catapulted into the spotlight during the Daytona 500 when Earnhardt catapulted his car, Vickers deserves more notice than that. The fact is, he was one of the best for much of Speedweeks. Vickers started it off with an impressive 11th in the Budweiser Shootout, a race it looked like he had a real shot at winning. He followed that up with a third-place run in the second Gatorade Duel. He had a car capable of contending for the win in the Daytona 500, until he was trapped a lap down when the yellow flag flew in the middle of a pit sequence. It was while trying to race his way back onto the lead lap, or at the very least into position for the free pass, that Vickers blocked Earnhardt’s charge to the inside, and Earnhardt responded by knocking Vickers asunder, right in front of the field.

Vickers has had his moments – he lost a wheel last May while leading the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. He had a shot at Michigan until NASCAR mistakenly lined him up in the wrong position on a late restart, costing him a shot at racing for the win. In short, Vickers has had some good runs derailed by some terrible luck. There is a saying in racing that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Vickers is already good. If he gets lucky, too, he could be a driver to watch this year.

And Vickers is the type of driver who could be – should be – a fan favorite. He is a genuinely nice young man who paid his dues at every level of racing, beginning in go-karts at age 11 and continuing through late models in North Carolina and the then-NASCAR Busch Series on a limited schedule in a family-owned ride before securing a ride with Hendrick Motorsports that would eventually propel him to a Sprint Cup career. He graduated high school with a 4.47 grade point average, good enough to be valedictorian, though he missed the graduation ceremony because he was racing. He is smart and has a sense of humor. He certainly doesn’t forget his fans; he’s gracious and one of the few drivers who maintains and interacts with people on his own Facebook page. Most drivers just have their PR people do that, but not Vickers. He has also learned the hard way just how much racing can take.

Growing up in North Carolina, a young Vickers often carpooled to school with another kid who shared his love for racing. The two became close friends based on their common interests, and both looked to forge a career in NASCAR, though young Brian’s friend had the way paved for him while Vickers was just another kid with big dreams. The dream of racing together came crashing down on a cold May day in 2000, when Adam Petty, Vickers’s childhood friend, was killed in a practice crash in New Hampshire.

Vickers did as racers do and raced on. He drove in three Nationwide Series races in 2001 and 21 in 2003 before a lack of funding forced an end to his family venture. But another young driver had befriended Vickers in the garage, and the friendship would prove fortuitous for Vickers. The other driver, it turns out, had quite an eye for talent. He had been the first to point out Johnson to his team-owner father when both ran NASCAR’s second series. And he wanted to get more into the business side of things, having realized that driving wasn’t his career calling. And that switch is easy to make when your last name is Hendrick, and your father is one of the top owners in the sport. And Ricky Hendrick suggested that the team put his friend Vickers in the car that he was stepping out of. Vickers didn’t disappoint.

He won the Nationwide Series championship in 2003 for HMS, becoming the youngest champion in series history.

In 2004, Rick Hendrick gave the 20-year-old Vickers the Cup opportunity he had dreamed of. The learning curve was steep, though Vickers had some strong runs. He had the advantage of the tutelage of veterans Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon as well as rising star Johnson. It looked as though Vickers, who had carried Adam Petty’s hat in the car with him in his drive to the Nationwide title, was finally on top of the world.

And then the world came crashing down again. The weather in Martinsville was cold and grey, though the race went off as scheduled. Vickers was awaiting the arrival of Ricky Hendrick, his best friend and spotter, to call his race, and more importantly, to celebrate afterward. It was Vickers’s 21st birthday, and Hendrick, older by three years, had promised to take Vickers out on the town after they got done racing. Hendrick didn’t arrive by race time, and Vickers took the green flag with a substitute spotter. His team told Vickers that Hendrick’s plane was running late. Mercifully, they didn’t tell him until after the race that the plane had crashed into a mountain in the fog, and that Ricky, along with nine other passengers, hadn’t survived.

Again Vickers raced on, though red-faced and teary-eyed for most of the next weekend at Atlanta. Teammate Johnson won the race, and Vickers joined him and all of their teammates in victory lane. It was the first time he smiled all weekend.

Vickers spent another two years at HMS after that, winning at Talladega in the fall of 2006 but never seeming quite comfortable. The win was under a cloud of controversy; Vickers had gotten into Johnson on the final lap, sending both Johnson and race leader Earnhardt spinning as he took the checkers. Vickers dedicated the win to Ricky Hendrick as Johnson and Earnhardt fumed. It was time to move on.

Vickers went to the upstart Team Red Bull Toyota team in 2007, and at first it seemed like a colossal mistake. Toyota was new to the series, and the team was simply outclassed. 2008 saw vast improvement in Toyota’s program, and those near misses proved that Vickers was in top form.

Vickers has started 2009 fast out of the gate. This could be a breakout year for the quiet redhead with the Southern accent who enjoys following the stock market and skydiving. The pieces have been coming together for the 25-year-old driver who is still very young by Sprint Cup standards, though his years in the top series make it easy to forget how young he really is. While only time will tell if the young driver will become the fan favorite that should be a foregone conclusion given his background and personality, the time is now for Vickers to become known for something else… winning races. Don’t be surprised if that happens in 2009. Don’t be surprised at all.

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