Brian Vickers is somewhat of an enigma.
He won the 2003 XFINITY Series championship and was subsequently promoted to the No. 25 team of Hendrick Motorsports. He underperformed in the car, winning just a single race during his three years with HMS – a victory that came at the expense of his teammate Jimmie Johnson, who was battling for his first Sprint Cup title.
Vickers left the team just six races later to run for Red Bull Racing’s upstart operation in 2007, taking the team from back-marker to Chase-caliber in three years, but again won only a single race. A year later, he found himself out of the car due to blood clots.
He returned to RBR in 2011 but was unable to find the competitiveness that he’d had in 2009, and the team folded at the end of the season. Without a ride and with his health still in question, Vickers only ran 25 races from 2012-2013 – this time with Michael Waltrip Racing – but made the most of his opportunity, winning once more at Loudon in July of 2013.
His success with the team led to a full-time ride in 2014, but again he underperformed, finishing in the top 5 in only three races. Off-season heart surgery meant that Vickers would miss the first two races of 2015, but he had high hopes for the year. Then, the unthinkable happened: another recurrence of blood clots, meaning Vickers would only race twice in 2015.
Medically cleared to race again in 2016, but without a ride, Vickers found himself the leading candidate to fill in for Tony Stewart as Stewart recovered from a back injury sustained during the off-season.
His final scheduled race with the No. 14 team came last weekend at Texas, which ended with a wreck and a 37th-place finish. In all, Vickers made five starts in the car, and while he was able to score only a single top 10 at Martinsville, his finishes don’t indicate how well he ran. With Stewart still out indefinitely and Ty Dillon the only other driver to make starts in the No. 14 this season, it seems a little premature despite the lack of scheduling to say that this is the last we’ve seen of Vickers in the Stewart-Haas Racing fold. Does he deserve more chances in the car?
VICKERS IS TOO RISKY
Look, Brian Vickers is a nice guy. He’s been through so much and kept his spirits up, clawed his way back to the Cup level after his illness forced him out and even won a few races – better than 2,800 other drivers who have raced at the Sprint Cup level (hat tip to Jeff Gluck for the number). But he just isn’t the right fit for the team.
There is more to this than his illness and the possibility that the clots come back. If that were solely the case, then sure – Vickers should definitely keep the ride. The team is already down its primary driver so why not put a proven driver in the car to keep the seat warm? If the clots come back, SHR can find yet another driver – I bet Clint Bowyer would jump at the opportunity to drive the car he will take over next season. But the team has already been through so much it could use a little stability in the form of a single, guaranteed-healthy driver.
When Kyle Busch sat out 11 races last season due to injury, nine of them were run with David Ragan behind the wheel. It would make sense for SHR, then, to either put Ty Dillon or Vickers in the seat, but not switch it up like it has so far. And since Vickers has a question mark next to his health, it would make sense for the former to get the spot.
Discriminatory? Perhaps. A fair assessment? Absolutely.
It’s more than that, though. Vickers hasn’t performed in the No. 14 car the way the team is used to. This is a championship-winning car, and Vickers has averaged a 23.8 finish in the car over his five races.
But without Stewart in the car, I’ll admit that it’s unreasonable to expect it to run like a front-runner. This is where the other drivers of the No. 14 car come in. Not Ty Dillon, mind you – the other drivers that have filled in for Stewart over the past few years due to injury and other off-track incidents.
This list includes Ty’s brother Austin as well as Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Max Papis and Regan Smith. All told, the five drivers have run the No. 14 car in 16 races with a single top 10 among them (for Martin). The five drivers averaged a 22.35 average start and a 23.9 average finish, with three DNFs total.
Contrast this to Vickers’ five races: a 15.4 average start and a 23.8 average finish. So while Vickers is heads and shoulders above the rest in qualifying (and is putting up better numbers than his career-long average start of 17.4), he is just as average as they were when it comes to finishing position.
The real incriminating evidence, however, is twofold: first off, Vickers’ career-long average finish is 20.2, so he’s actually underperforming in a car that is one of the best he’s ever driven – remember, teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch have been among the class of the field week in and week out. Second, his competition of Ty Dillon is performing even better with an average finish of 16th.
Vickers is a good driver, no doubt. But there are questions surrounding his health and his ability to outperform the competition for the seat. Has he earned more starts with the No. 14 team? Not with Ty Dillon in the fold. Should he leave Cup altogether? No. There are plenty of teams that could use him in one capacity or another. We haven’t seen the last of Vickers, just of Vickers in the No. 14 car.
HE’S EARNED THIS
If Tony Stewart is going to continue to sit out of the No. 14 Chevrolet as he recovers from injury, then Brian Vickers deserves to continue filling in for the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
Why? Because he’s the best candidate available.
In three of his five races in Stewart’s No. 14, Vickers has suffered from horrible luck. Crashes marred his races at Daytona International Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, and a broken axle ruined his day at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Look beyond those three instances of rotten luck, however, and Vickers begins to show potential. In the other two events, the two-time NSCS winner has scored finishes of 13th at Auto Club Speedway and seventh at Martinsville Speedway, the first top-10 result for the No. 14 since Stewart himself scored a 10th-place finish at – you guessed it – Martinsville.
For comparison’s sake, Ty Dillon, the other part-time sub for Stewart this season, managed finishes of 15th and 17th, respectively, at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway.
If you really want to look deep into the comparisons, you can also take a glance at Austin Dillon and Mark Martin’s turns in the No. 14 after Stewart broke his leg in a sprint car race at Southern Iowa Speedway in 2013. In the elder Dillon brother finished no better than 14th in the ride, and Martin, one of the best drivers to compete in the Cup Series, scored only one top 10 – a ninth-place performance at Richmond International Raceway – in 12 races.
He hasn’t led a lap, and has suffered the lion’s share of trouble to start the season, but Vickers has also proven to have the highest ceiling of any of the potential substitutes for Smoke, with the best finish of any non-Stewart driver in the ride. The 32-year-old is also perfect for a substitute role.
Due to recurring heart issues, Vickers has found difficulty completing full seasons over the last six years. In fact, the Thomasville, North Carolina native has only completed the full schedule in two of the last six years. However, Vickers has thrived as a substitute.
Starting with Michael Waltrip Racing as a part-time driver in 2012, Vickers quickly established himself as a legitimate contender with a 13.2 average finish in eight starts. The following year, Vickers took the team’s No. 55 Toyota to victory lane at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, earning a full-time ride with the team. Even in 2014, as things slowly began to unravel for MWR, Vickers rallied to three top-five finishes and nine top 10s.
The 2015 season didn’t offer Vickers many opportunities thanks to a resurgence of his heart ailments, but the 14-year veteran has again proven his worth in 2016. If Vickers doesn’t hop over to the Verizon IndyCar Series for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500, then Stewart-Haas Racing would be wise to keep him behind the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet until Stewart returns for his farewell tour.