There are very few drivers that have taken to the track in 2012 more deserving of a full-time ride in anything than Brian Vickers. A stellar part-time performance with Michael Waltrip Racing after finding himself out of a job following the closure of Red Bull Racing has kept Vickers in Toyota’s good graces, as he will drive a Nationwide car full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. It will mark Vickers’ first full Nationwide campaign since 2003, where he won the championship driving for Rick Hendrick.
The signing elevates both driver and team to the status of Nationwide championship favorites for 2013. For all the success a more experienced Austin Dillon has had this year and the strength his RCR bunch has shown in their return to Nationwide competition, Vickers has done this before, winning a four-way battle for the 2003 crown that came down to Homestead. And as Joey Logano showed constantly in 2012, the JGR Toyotas are still the strongest entries in the Nationwide Series field, regardless of the race track.
For Vickers, the signing means a chance not only to contend for a championship, but to be in a race car that can win any given Saturday for the first time since leaving Hendrick Motorsports following the 2006 season. His hunger as a driver was on display every time he took to the track in 2012; Vickers led 158 laps and scored five top 10 finishes in only eight Cup starts. And as Logano, who was driving for a job for much of this season, hungry drivers win races in JGR’s Toyotas.
Vickers fans have reason to be eager for 2013. Their driver is going to win and contend for a championship. For 2013, this is as great a situation as driver and team could ask for.
Having said that, Vickers’ current situation most closely resembles the career trajectory of one Elliott Sadler, who similarly found new life at the end of 2010 when he signed to drive a Nationwide car for RCR. Sadler has since returned to victory lane, and is currently tied for the Nationwide points lead on the back of four race wins in 2012. And for all those results, for a runner-up finish in points a season ago and a second title run this year, Sadler’s moving on from RCR and his powerful No. 2 NNS entry.
Why? Because while running Nationwide and running well in it is a career refresher and a return to relevance, it’s not the goal for any driver that’s been a Cup regular before. Rather, it’s a means to an end…a way back up to NASCAR’s big leagues.
For Sadler, that hasn’t happened. Since joining RCR, Sadler has run only one Cup race, and it wasn’t five laps into that race (this year’s Daytona 500) that he caused a wreck being over-eager, leading some Cup regulars to question whether Sadler was too eager to get back up top to race effectively at that level. The rapid rise of the Dillon brothers has also compounded the situation, filling the stable at RCR. But there’s something else to be said here…does it really matter that Sadler ran well at the Nationwide level?
The fact of the matter is, Logano, for example, has never been anything more than a mediocre Cup driver, yet driving Nationwide in 2012 he’s been the literal class of the field. In today’s Nationwide Series, good cars that aren’t wrecked all but guarantee top 15 finishes. A little bit of talent turns that to top 10s. And in the case of drivers like Sadler and Logano, years of Cup experience turn those top 10s into wins.
Why is this relevant to Brian Vickers? Because, as his willingness to run partial schedules with MWR demonstrates, Vickers is looking for his own path back to Cup. And he’s taking the wheel of a ride that has proven a contender with all levels of talent in it. Kyle Busch won tons of races in JGR cars. Joey Logano picked up right where he left off. Darrell Wallace Jr. turned limited East Series experience into instant top 10s in his limited starts with the team.
In short, should Vickers win lots of races and contend for a championship, there’s a real question as to whether he’s proving anything…or just doing what he frankly should be doing. Sure, Vickers’ current arrangement is likely a marriage created by Toyota, trying to keep him in a car and occupied until Mark Martin will vacate the No. 55 and leave him with a Cup ride at MWR. But nonetheless, Vickers has to make himself a name worthy of that return. Sponsors need to know the name.
Whether Nationwide Series success will do that for Vickers remains to be seen. Because for every driver that’s made that climb in recent years, there’s a graveyard of those that failed.
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