In five plus years at the Cup Series level, Brian Vickers has never shied away from taking chances.
But even one of the sport’s biggest risk takers found himself feeling the heat during the final few laps of a sizzling summer day at Michigan. And why wouldn’t he? One simple sputter in the fuel tank is all it would take to make his Chase bid go bust; and with the team trying to stretch their mileage 51 laps, crew chief Ryan Pemberton had the fuel tank running out at 49.
Knowing he had to make up the gap, Vickers had done all he could to conserve on the track. But with no way to know if it was enough, that led to an agonizing line of questioning from the driver’s seat. It’s the type of decision that gives you way too much time to think when brainpower does absolutely nothing to keep the engine afloat.
“I got to tell you, when you’re coming to two to go, I’m still sweating bullets no matter how much confidence you got,” he said of what equated to little more than two minutes of hell. “It was definitely a sickening feeling in the bottom of my stomach we could run out at any minute.”
Yet it was adversity he knew exactly how to handle.
Sick to his stomach was just the tip of the iceberg as to how Vickers felt almost five full years ago, in the midst of a tragedy few comprehend and no one will ever truly understand. That fall, 10 people were killed in a plane crash mere miles from the Martinsville Speedway in which their teams were busy competing; among them was the man responsible for bringing Vickers into Cup in the first place, Ricky Hendrick.
He was also Vickers’s best friend.
During that awful stretch that rounded out his rookie year, confidence was hardly the word to describe a 21-year-old rocked by the aftermath of a loss incomprehensible for those that young. I still remember Vickers at the first press conference after that horror; with the veterans doing the talking, he was too emotionally distraught to say much, speaking overwhelmed by immeasurable sorrow. Leaning on the support of family and bonding with others within HMS, Vickers did find a way to cope… but he’ll never forget.
Yet out of those dark days came the maturation of someone shaken, but not stirred. They say that which does not kill us makes us stronger, and over the next 18 months Vickers turned back towards his goal of becoming the sport’s next future star. But without Ricky’s gentle guidance at the No. 25, the team was becoming another cog in the Hendrick wheel. At just 23 years of age, Vickers had to smartly realize he would never achieve his goal of being a team’s top dog in a place where men like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson made their home. Maybe with Ricky there it would be different… but for whatever reason, it just wasn’t meant to be.
At the same time, Mr. Hendrick would never make a move on his son’s hand-picked replacement… the ride was Vickers’s for as long as he wanted it. It would have to be the driver making the choice to move on.
So in a move that surprised the NASCAR world at the time, he stood up, faced the music, and made that difficult choice. There was no Ricky then, only Brian… but the lessons learned and the confidence gained way back when had come home to roost.
The choice for Vickers post-Hendrick was a virtual unknown in the stock car world. With Toyota entering into the Cup Series, Red Bull’s open-wheel owners had come calling to form a partnership in NASCAR, a two-car team in which they wanted two young drivers hand-picked as their future. Vickers was their first signing, his soul-searching turning to team-building as he relished the opportunity to become a star from the ground up. Heading into their inaugural season, the team expected a slow but steady stream of success with both money and resources backing them.
13 DNQs later, everyone involved learned a hard lesson in how difficult it is to compete.
“We were loading up and going home from races that I never dreamed we would,” he says of that difficult ‘07. “Races I never qualified out of the top five from. We missed them as a team, as a group. That was tough, painful… probably the hardest year of my racing career.”
Yet not once during that year did Vickers question that gamble – even when replacement Casey Mears won a race in his old ride. Instead, a quiet, steady confidence held firm in a man who saw long-term goals in ways so many others his age never can.
“One thing I’ve learned in this business is there’s a lot you can control,” he said. “Sometimes, there’s even more you can’t.”
“You’re never going to get all of it right the first time. You’re going to have to adapt, make changes, and we have.”
Yet all the way through, Vickers has never wavered from those long-term aspirations. In early ’08, he told me that by year three he expected to be in the Chase and have himself a crack at the title. But he wasn’t about to push things further, knowing firsthand the overall difficulty even as the team itself was starting to come around. Quietly, he put his leadership skills to work instead while entrusting those around him to find the right management personnel in place (enter: Jay Frye, Kevin Hamlin and Ryan Pemberton, crucial additions behind the scenes and on top of the pit box).
Suddenly, all the pieces were put together for a team desperately searching to make it to the next level. Yet as improvement came… luck continued to elude. Mistakes like a loose wheel (Lowe’s), poor pit stops, and wrecks at the wrong time left victory lane a dream and not a reality through the final few laps of this Sunday. With six poles in ‘09, Vickers was on the verge of setting a modern-era record for the most poles won by a team without winning a race.
Yet not once did you see Vickers lash out… not once did you see him complain. The only breaking point has concerned the bumbles surrounding a possible contract extension, agitating him not out of worry for his own future but the lack of respect for the past. Coming to TRB was a gamble, yet Vickers had turned the odds in his favor all by himself; and in his mind, that’s more than enough to warrant another few years in the seat.
So as time ran out on Sunday, the nervousness of Vickers was steadied once again by that quiet confidence. Making a gamble of this magnitude was the equivalent of playing with fire: Win, and you all but put yourself in position to make the Chase. Lose, and the team’s out of the playoffs after you run out and finish 30th. Nothing was guaranteed until the final corner of the final lap, even after Johnson ahead of Vickers ran out a full two miles before.
But that left Vickers sitting pretty in first place; and as the checkered flag fell some 45 seconds later, it was clear the “No guts, no glory” philosophy led to the ultimate prize: a trip to victory lane.
“There’s been a lot of ups,” he said afterward. “That’s what has made it worthwhile. We’ve had a lot of great races, six poles this year.”
“But to finally get this win, I can’t tell you how much it means to me.”
Now, confidence rings high in the Red Bull camp that a Chase bid could be next on the way. With just 12 points separating Vickers from 12th-place Mark Martin, the boost from the win was an eye-popping just one day after ending the Nationwide race in a shouting match with fellow Chase contender Kyle Busch. However, the conflict was never something that overly bothered him during the Cup show.
Not that it was any bit of a surprise.
“Today was a different race,” he explained. “A new day. I just wanted to focus on my life, my race. I could care less about what happened yesterday. Life is too short to worry about stuff like that.”
Spoken like a man who’s comfortable in his own skin. And as a result, the confidence over in the No. 83 has never been higher.
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