Some storylines in NASCAR are easy to predict, and others you never see coming. And in the latter category falls the tale of Red Bull Racing, which endured a 2010 season that was as unexpected as it was disappointing, but one that ended on a hopeful note.
The 2009 season had been a breakthrough campaign for Red Bull, which in its third full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series saw driver Brian Vickers both win a race and qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, two firsts for the team.
Heading into 2010, Vickers was thought to be one of the handful of drivers with legitimate championship aspirations. Young, fast and confident, Vickers came into the year with the idea of knocking off his former teammate, Jimmie Johnson and winning the Cup title.
Vickers was teamed with former F1 racer Scott Speed, who in his second full season in the Sprint Cup Series was expected to show significant improvement.
The season got off to a decent, but not spectacular start for Red Bull. Six races into the year, Vickers had scored five top-15 finishes and was 12th in points, exactly where he ended the 2009 season. Speed started off OK, too, finishing 11th at Auto Club Speedway and earning his second career top 10 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he came home 10th.
And then, the bottom fell out.
Vickers finished 37th at Phoenix, 38th at Texas, 29th at Talladega and 20th at Richmond. He appeared to get back on track with a 10th-place run at Darlington when his world suddenly and permanently changed for the worse: Between Darlington and Dover in early May, Vickers experienced severe internal pain and after consulting with doctors back in Charlotte, checked himself into a hospital in Washington, D.C. The diagnosis was staggering, as the 26-year-old Vickers learned he was suffering from blod clots in the legs and lungs.
Doctors put Vickers on a regimen of blood thinners and told him he was done for the year. It was a devastating blow to both driver and team.
In an emotional press conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway May 21, Vickers outlined his feelings. “It sucks,” he said bluntly. “This is what I love to do. I was laying the hospital and I probably wasn’t asking the right questions. Instead of asking, ‘Am I going to live?’ I was asking, ‘Can I race this weekend?’ That tells you kind of how I feel about racing. This is my life, this is what I love to do and I fully intend on doing it again. Being more focused and driven to do it better than I’ve ever done it before.”
Filling in for Vickers initially was Casey Mears. But that experiment went badly wrong at Michigan in June, when Mears slid into Speed and wrecked them both when they were deep in the field. “I mean really, we’re running like in the very back of the pack and like crap and we’re going to wreck each other? Really?” Speed said on his radio.
Speed finished 28th, Mears 36th.
By the time the team hit Infineon Raceway the next week, Mears had been released. In his place for one race was DTM sensation Mattias Ekstrom, who in his first NASCAR competition led seven laps and finished in the top half of the field.
When the series moved back to the oval tracks, journeymen Reed Sorenson drove Vickers’ No. 83 for most of the summer, with Boris Said driving at Watkins Glen and Ekstrom taking the helm for one race at Richmond.
Then in August came another shocker: Kasey Kahne, who was in the final year of his contract at Richard Petty Motorsports and had already signed a deal to driver for Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, announced that he would move to Red Bull for 2011 only.
Initially, Red Bull did not say whether Kahne would replace Vickers, Speed or race a third team car in 2011.
Prior to the Martinsville race in October, Kahne left the cash-strapped RPM team to join Red Bull for the final five races of 2010. But even then, the outlook was fuzzy about the team lineup.
“Our plan right now is to have two cars,” said Red Bull General Manager Jay Frye at a press conference at Martinsville. “We’re monitoring Brian’s (Vickers) health and it appears to be on course and doing great. Again, we’re also monitoring Scott (Speed) and his performance, where he’s at and what’s going to happen next. We’re going to end up having, at this point, two cars and possibly three drivers. At that point, decisions will have to be made. It’s not necessarily the case that decisions have been made yet.”
“I’m excited. It’s a big change for myself,” said Kahne. “I’ve been doing really the same thing for six and a half years. To make a change like this is — it’s new people, it’s new cars, manufacturer, sponsor — everything is different. It’ll be a big change for myself. Just starting to work with new people, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Kahne ended the year on a decent note with three top-15 finishes in his five races with Red Bull, including a sixth in the season finale at Homestead.
But the twists and turns were not over.
In late November, Red Bull released Speed, who responded by filing a $6.5 million breach-of-contract suit against the team, litigation which is still pending.
The good news for the team?
Vickers has been cleared to drive for 2011 and with the addition of Kahne and his old crew chief Kenny Francis, it’s entirely possible that this team could be a formidable outfit once again in 2011. Then again, no one could have imagined what would happen to Red Bull in 2010 and like every other team, they’ll just have to wait until next February to see how their season unfolds.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.