Despite heart surgery, Brian Vickers says he's on track for 2011 return

Brian Vickers had heart surgery last month as part of his treatment for blood clots, but the NASCAR driver said he fully expects to resume his racing career next season.

Vickers has been out since May because of clots in his leg and lungs. In his first update in three months, Vickers said Saturday he had two procedures in July to close a hole in his heart and insert a stent into a vein in his left leg.

Although doctors diagnosed him with the blood-clot disorder May-Thurner syndrome, Vickers believes he'll be off blood thinners by Jan. 1 and driving for Red Bull Racing when next season begins.

"They gave me full clearance for next year," the 26-year-old driver said at Bristol Motor Speedway. "I will be back next season racing in January. I'm really excited about that. I had two issues I never knew about fixed. It's a bit of fresh air for me to really kind of know part of what caused this."

Vickers was hospitalized in May with chest pains that led to the discovery of blood clots in his leg and lungs. He said he'd stop driving the rest of the season while undergoing treatment, and revealed Saturday the discovery of a third clot, in his finger, that doctors believe moved through a hole in his heart.

He had surgery July 12 to close the passageway, and a second procedure to insert the stent was done the next day.

Vickers said he made a choice between having heart surgery to fix the hole, or "not to close it and run the risk of having a stroke.

"I would rather die than have a stroke," he said. "I don't wan to run the risk of living like a vegetable."

It was during the heart surgery that Vickers said doctors confirmed their theory he was suffering from May-Thurner, a blood clot disorder that increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis.

Still on blood thinners Coumadin and Plavix, Vickers said he's been told he'll stop taking them in time to race next season. The 2011 season officially begins in Daytona in February. Doctors believe he'll be off the medication by Jan. 1 and cleared to race again next season.

Red Bull has used four different drivers in the No. 83 Toyota since Vickers got out of the car following his May 13 trip to a Washington, D.C., emergency room.

"What I love to do is race, it's not only my job, it's my passion," he said. "I definitely am missing that need for speed. I missed being in the car, missed going 200 mph and missed banging fenders with the guys I love and hate."

Vickers has not been at the track much since his diagnosis, saying he's chosen to use this medical leave as an opportunity to travel and spend time with friends and family. He's been active riding bikes, swimming and golfing, and believes he's in the best shape of his life and will be ready to go in 2011.

"I have a new appreciation for life," he said. "I'm looking forward to it and I'm excited to race."