MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Brian Vickers' latest comeback got off to a roaring start two weeks ago with a fifth-place finish at Bristol for Michael Waltrip Racing.
The driver who admitted having wondered more than once if he was viewed as "damaged goods" hopes to keep his comeback on track when he returns this weekend to the scene of one of his worst days in racing: Martinsville Speedway.
Last fall, Vickers was involved in five cautions on the small, paperclip-shaped oval, three in the first 100 laps. He tangled with Matt Kenseth, Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray, and was criticized by former teammate Jimmie Johnson afterward.
Vickers, though, has plenty of practice on the comeback trail, and bigger issues than a few ticked off competitors. He missed 25 races in 2010 while battling blood clots, and lost his ride with Red Bull Racing when it closed down after last season.
"Yeah, which time did I think that?" he said about worrying if he was damaged goods. "That conversation — I have had with myself many times over the last couple of years, whether it was I found out Red Bull was shutting down or towards the end of last year trying to keep it going or through the off-season talking to other teams or when I was laying in hospital bed two years ago."
Looking ahead, he realized, is the best way to approach his opportunity with MWR, which initially gave his six races to run this year in a shared ride with Mark Martin, and added the two road courses to Vickers' slate after his good showing last weekend.
While the good run felt validating to Vickers, he knows he needs to keep showing what he can do to have hope of securing a full time job next season, although Waltrip seemed to hint that that opportunity could eventually be with MWR.
"Keep chipping away. Keep going, young man," he said, "and who knows, you might have them all one day."
"It's part of any pro sport. It's what have you done for me lately? What are your results lately? And these eight races are very important to me," he said. "Obviously, when you only have eight shots at it, you better make them count."
That the second one comes on NASCAR's oldest, shortest oval is intriguing, to say the least.
In the fall race last year, Kenseth was still second in the championship chase when he and Vickers tangled, and near the end of the race, Vickers wrecked Kenseth, taking him out of title contention. He also likely cost Johnson a chance at winning the race.
Kenseth said he brings no grudge into Sunday's race, which he'll start 21st. Vickers will be 6th.
"I think if you're sitting there worrying about that stuff and thinking about it, you're certainly not giving your best effort to try and get the best finish that you can, so I think that's all water under the bridge and you move forward from there." He said.
And Johnson, too, is over it, and rooting for Vickers to keep his resurgence going.
"When I look back at what he's been through over the last three or four years, the first issue he had was a medical issue. And I know how difficult it was for him to not be in the car due to medical reasons," the five-time series champion said, adding that Vickers missed an opportunity to pursue another job after last season because the Red Bull situation was up in the air for so long.
"I know he's trying to do everything he can to position himself as a top pick and work his way back into a great team and do his job. He's been through a rough few years and hopefully things get stable for him on the racing side of things," Johnson said.
By Sunday night, Vickers hopes his comeback is still a hot topic of conversation, and his mistakes of last year are not.
"My goal this year is for that to go away — for that to become a non-issue — and that's what Bristol was for me and I can't thank Michael enough for that opportunity," he said. "My goal this weekend is to make it disappear again, so that when we're back here in the next race, we're talking a great run at Martinsville and everybody completely forgets about the other one."