Brian Vickers' surprising win on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway made for one of the biggest feel-good stories of the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season.
Three years ago, Vickers' racing career was in doubt when he suffered blood clots in his legs and lungs and later had heart surgery as part of his treatment. After sitting out most of the 2010 season, Vickers returned healthy to his Red Bull Racing team at the start of 2011. But Red Bull shut down after the season concluded, leaving Vickers without a ride.
Team owner Michael Waltrip came to Vickers' rescue in 2012 when he offered him the role as part-time driver of the No. 55 Toyota. Mark Martin drove the car in 24 races last season, while Vickers was behind the wheel in eight events and Waltrip in four. Vickers looked impressive with Michael Waltrip Racing last year, scoring three top-five finishes and five top-10s.
Driving the No. 55 car for the fifth time this season, Vickers' victory at New Hampshire completed his remarkable comeback in NASCAR's top series. He ended his 75-race winless streak. His last trip to victory lane in a Sprint Cup race occurred in August 2009 at Michigan. He made the championship Chase that year.
"Just to be back in a race car for me personally was a big goal and a big accomplishment and a big step," Vickers said of his comeback. "It was because no one around me would let me give up on myself. I obviously didn't give up on myself, but when you have so much love and support around you, that makes all the difference in the world.
"Being able to win after all that is just almost unimaginable. It's so beyond what I was thinking about in that moment. Just getting back into a race car was all I could think about."
In addition to his partial schedule in Sprint Cup this year, Vickers is a full-time competitor in the Nationwide Series, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. He finished second in Saturday's race at New Hampshire, which elevated him to sixth in the point standings. He is currently 46 points behind leader Regan Smith.
At age 20, Vickers became the youngest driver to win a championship in Nationwide (then known as the Busch Series). He has not won a race in that series since his title season.
Vickers now has three career Sprint Cup victories, which is the same number of wins for him in Nationwide. His first Cup victory came in the fall of 2006 at Talladega. He drove a full-time Cup schedule for Hendrick Motorsports from 2004-06 before heading over to Red Bull.
With his New Hampshire win, Vickers made a strong case that he is worthy of a full-time opportunity in MWR's No. 55 car for next year. Martin is in his final season with Waltrip's team.
"We always have confidence when (Vickers) gets in the car that we can run up front and that we can compete for the win, and it's because he's a talented race car driver," MWR general manager Ty Norris said after Vickers's win. "Our organization is ready to win consistently, and we have won two of the last four (races). I would say if we can keep that 50 percent streak going then we'll be alright."
Vickers' teammate, Martin Truex Jr., won the June 23 race in Sonoma, Calif.
Waltrip and Rob Kauffman (MWR co-owner) were in England over the weekend, competing in the Goodwill Festival of Speed.
Vickers, who is scheduled to compete in four more Sprint Cup races this season, is hopeful he'll be a full-time driver for MWR next year.
"I feel very at home here and comfortable and confident in our chances to be successful, so this is where I want to be," he said. "I'm sure that a win helps, but it doesn't mean that the deal magically happens. We've still got work to do."
Vickers' next four Sprint Cup races with MWR are Watkins Glen (August 11), Bristol (August 24), New Hampshire (Sept. 22) and Martinsville (Oct. 27).