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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Brian Vickers On the Brink of the Ride of His Life

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. The signs were there well over a year ago – it was just a matter of time, a matter of a little more experience, a matter of a little luck. And when it mattered the most, the young driver from North Carolina (a dying breed now) found that little bit extra, that little bit more.

And some race fans were taken by surprise when all was said and done.

It certainly wasn’t easy, and at times it wasn’t pretty, either. It all came down to one race and finally, one lap. And Brian Vickers made that lap count – made it count for all the naysayers who called him crazy for leaving the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. Made it count for Toyota, who has their first true in-house Chase team. Made it count for the best friend he lost five years ago, the one who believed in him enough to put a virtually unknown and terribly young driver in a top Nationwide Series ride – a move which proved to be golden. Vickers won the series championship at barely 20; he’s the youngest driver ever to have that honor. The driver looked like a blue-chip prospect, and the young friend looked to be following in his father’s footsteps as a car owner with an eye for young talent.

The friend was, of course, Ricky Hendrick, whose father gambled on young drivers like Tim Richmond, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and made them winners. Ricky died in 2004 in the midst of the first Chase, leaving Vickers stunned. He would leave Hendrick Motorsports for the upstart Team Red Bull in 2007, under heavy criticism for taking a step backward. But Vickers and his brand-new team went, inside of a year and a half, from fighting just to make the occasional race to contending for wins. And then, in year three as a team, Vickers drove his Red Bull Toyota into the Chase. It was a coup for Toyota, their first Chase berth for a true TRD team (Joe Gibbs Racing runs in-house equipment) and a bit of vindication for Vickers who proved wrong every person who said he’d left the best ride he’d ever have.

Vickers beat two of the best for his Chase berth – a former champion who just couldn’t muster his trademark consistency when he needed it most, and a phenomenal young talent with everything to prove and a chip on his shoulder that weighed him down one time too many during the season. Either of them, on paper, should have made the Chase, but it was Vickers who did.

You could see it back in February, flashes of a team on the brink. I wrote in this column after the Daytona 500 that this was a young driver on the verge of a breakout season. And break out he did. His six poles led all drivers, and he doubled his top-10 count over 2008 to 13 in the first 26 races. He also grabbed four top fives as well as a win at Michigan – the newspapers said fuel mileage, but the fact is, Vickers was a contender anyway. It’s actually a little surprising he hasn’t won more often – he has been strong at intermediate tracks in particular for the last two years and could easily have three or four wins by now. He’s had the look all summer of a driver about to reel off a winning streak. And if Vickers finds that streak in the Chase, he has a very real shot of doing more than just making it in.

He’s got a shot at being the 2009 Sprint Cup champion.

Admittedly, it’s a long shot. Team Red Bull is a newcomer to this playground, and they now go head-to-head with 11 top-notch teams – including five with Hendrick equipment (though, ironically, Vickers’s old team is not among them). This is the best of the best, not a battle for 12th spot. Vickers is seeded eighth, as four Chasers have not won a race this year. One bad race can end a Chase run before it starts, and though Vickers is decent at New Hampshire, he only has one top 10 to his name at Dover.

But then come the intermediates – five of them in the Chase – where Vickers has been in the hunt nearly every time out. Then comes Talladega, where Vickers has a win and three top-five finishes.

Vickers has also proven that he and his team have the ability to overcome adversity in fine form – the intangible that propelled Johnson to three straight titles. At Atlanta two weeks ago, while putting together another strong intermediate-track run, Vickers had a broken rear axle late in the race – a part failure that could-should – have been catastrophic not only to his race, but to his Chase chances. But it wasn’t. His team was able, with a little luck and a lot of composure, to change the axle on pit road, keeping Vickers on the lead lap. Vickers finished seventh.

The following week at Richmond, the 12th Chase spot seemed all but a foregone conclusion… for Kyle Busch. Busch had a top-10 average finish at Richmond, far above Vickers and Matt Kenseth. Vickers had just one top 10 and two finishes better than 24th at the track. It looked as though the No. 83 team would fall short of the Chase. Busch finished fifth, but Vickers went into the race ahead by just enough that his career-best seventh-place finish gave him the final spot by a scant eight points.

But eight points was enough, and Vickers finds himself in the thick of things as the Chase begins. And the other teams are taking his presence seriously. When asked earlier in the week who he thought would be the biggest threat to Johnson’s historic bid for a fourth straight championship, Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus said with out hesitating, “The [Nos.] 83 and the 11.”

The No. 11 is perennial Chase participant Denny Hamlin. The No 83 is Brian Vickers.

Vickers team is just the type that while others may look better on paper, they’re all going to be looking over their collective shoulder to make sure he isn’t gaining on them. If he hits a hot streak, he could go from upstart to contender to winner to champion – long the mantra at Hendrick Motorsports – in just three short years. And he’s just 25.

Vickers isn’t a favorite for the title, but he’d be a very wise darkhorse pick. Should the luck hold and Vickers keep rising to the occasion, he could find himself a champion. The last item on the Hendrick list is “dynasty,” and they have certainly built one over the last three years. Could the 25-year-old who many thought committed career suicide by leaving Hendrick Motorsports be the one to topple their dynasty? He’s got a shot.

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