Of all the storylines to emerge in the still young 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, few were more surprising than the one that played out Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway.
There, Brian Vickers finished fifth in his first race with Michael Waltrip Racing, as all three MWR drivers came home in the top five, a first in team history. It was the first of six races this year with MWR for Vickers, and so far the only ride he has this season.
It’s been a star-crossed racing career for Vickers, who in 2003 became the youngest NASCAR Nationwide Series champion in history driving for his close friend Ricky Hendrick, who less than a year later would perish in the crash of a Hendrick Motorsports team plane near Martinsville, Va.
Vickers, who will appear on SPEED’s NASCAR Race Hub at 6 p.m. ET tonight, won his first Sprint Cup race in the fall of 2006, famously knocking his then-Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson into Dale Earnhardt on the last lap at Talladega and passing both en route to victory.
At the end of 2006, Vickers left Hendrick to join the start-up Red Bull Racing team, enduring a miserable first season that saw him DNQ in 13 of 36 races in 2007.
Gradually Red Bull improved and in 2009, Vickers had a breakout campaign, earning the team’s first race victory at Michigan International Speedway and making the Chase for the Sprint Cup, another team first. At that point, Vickers and Red Bull appeared to be poised to race for a championship in the future, likely sooner rather than later.
Vickers competed in only 11 races in 2010 before being felled by blood clots that sidelined him for the remainder of the year. He returned to Red Bull in 2011, but the team announced in June that it was closing at the end of the year, and Vickers could do no better than finish 25th in points.
Over the busy winter, Vickers’ name was conspicuously absent from the Silly Season chatter and when 2012 began, he was out of work. But with Mark Martin driving the MWR No. 55 for only 25 races, the team needed a part-time fill-in. Elliott Sadler was originally signed to drive six races in Martin’s absence, but when team owner Richard Childress objected, Sadler withdrew and Vickers got the ride.
Sunday at Bristol, Vickers put on an impressive show, leading 125 of 500 laps before finishing fifth behind winner Brad Keselowski, runner-up Matt Kenseth and MWR drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Elliott Sadler.
Monday afternoon, Vickers sat down at SPEED.com to talk about his weekend and his prospects.
“I expected to run good,” said Vickers. “Remember, this isn’t the first time I’ve been out of the car. Actually, I was out of the car half as long this time as I was the first time. The first time was a big question mark, when I was out for six months with blood clots ... I felt like this was going to be a good weekend. I felt like maybe there were a few cobwebs to dust off, but more than anything, the challenge was being with a new team.”
Asked how it felt to run the way he did, Vickers minced no words.
“It felt awesome,” he said. “I mean, it just felt so good. I really couldn’t have written it any better. Yes, we’re racers, we want more, we’re greedy. Of course, it would have been great to win the race. But to lead that much and to run that well and finish in the top five and to contribute in some small way to MWR’s first top-five sweep, that was very special to me.”
Vickers, who is still looking for a permanent ride, doesn’t know what the Bristol run may mean for his career prospects.
“That’s a great question,” he said. “I have no idea. I’m not a very good judge of that. Some things that I think won’t hurt my stock do, and some things that I will, don’t. And then there’s things that I think won’t help that are huge.”
As for his low-profile prior to joining MWR, Vickers was busy. He and a group of investors tried to put together a deal to buy Red Bull, but it fell through at the 11th hour. So he kept quiet. “It’s just my style,” said Vickers. “If I don’t have anything to say, I don’t say anything.”
That doesn’t mean he wasn’t busy, mind you.
“I looked at a lot of different situations,” said Vickers. “Working with a group to buy Red Bull was really my primary focus for a long time. And I felt like we did a good job keeping that under wraps. We came very close, but unfortunately they (Red Bull) turned it down, which to me was really shocking. Even after Homestead, we made another offer and they turned it down. And I was like, ‘The season’s over. If you don’t sell it now, when are you going to sell it?’”
Vickers also talked to other teams about driving for them.
“I actually had a letter of intent signed twice to do something and it ended up not working,” he said. “ … There were a lot of opportunities that came along that I passed on. They just didn’t seem like the right fit for me.”
Vickers decided it was better to get a few races in good cars then a lot of races in bad ones.
“For me, I realized that this year was not going to be about quantity, it was going to be about quality,” said Vickers. “And I passed on some opportunities where I would have had a lot of quantity.”
Asked what’s next for him, Vickers laughed.
“Martinsville. I think my next race after that is Loudon,” he said. “I know what you’re asking. And I’m not trying to be a smartass. What’s next? I don’t know. Every time I try to think about what’s next, way out there, it doesn’t matter anyway, because something gets in the way.
“I had aspirations to go win a championship in 2010 after three years building a team at Red Bull winning a race, making the Chase. ‘OK, 2010, let’s go win a championship.’ That’s what was next for me. And I ended up in the hospital.”
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.