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LOUDON, N.H. – Brian Vickers can already claim a victory this season without taking a checkered flag.
Vickers has started all 18 Sprint Cup races, the kind of run that's a given for stars like Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon. For Vickers, the number holds a special significance. It means the blood clots that have cost him major chunks of his career since 2010 have yet to return.
He missed 25 races in 2010 when clots were discovered in his legs and, while he was out, he had heart surgery to prevent future clots from moving through his body to his brain.
A blood clot in his right calf found in October sidelined Vickers for the final five races of 2013 because he was taking blood thinners. If he crashed, the thinners would make it impossible for doctors to stop internal bleeding.
Recovered and ready to race, Vickers knows the clots could always return.
"I wouldn't say that I linger on it or I let it kind of affect my daily life," he said. "You just kind of have to move on. I certainly am conscious of it and I make decisions based upon the fact that I could have another clot."
Vickers is always on the move, stretching often or he takes walks on long flights.
"I won't just sit there for long periods of time," he said.
Except when he's behind the wheel of the No. 55 Toyota.
Vickers, coming off a runner-up finish at Dayton, is on pace to start all 36 races for the first time since 2011. He started only 11 in 2010 because of the clots, eight in 2012 and 17 last season (because of part-time schedules).
But one of those starts last season was a career highlight. After four years of health scares and unemployment put his promising career in doubt, Vickers was the surprise winner at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He snapped a 75-race winless streak and won for third time in 271 starts.
Back at New Hampshire for Sunday's race, Vickers couldn't help but recall all the fond memories of his victory celebration. Drivers saluted Vickers with a wave from the car or a back slap on the way to Victory Lane. Johnson, a close friend, pumped his fist out the window toward Vickers.
"I was out of the car and was told I may never race again," Vickers said. "And, to be able to get back into a car at all was a huge accomplishment for me personally. And, then to get back in Victory Lane was just kind of put it over the top."
Here are five things to know about Sunday's race:
BYE-BYE BURTON: Veteran Jeff Burton could make the final start of his Sprint Cup career. He's making just his second start of the season in the No. 66 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing. With no other races lined up, Burton could cross the finish line for the final time. He's already made the transition to the broadcast booth and is part of the "NASCAR America" panel on the NBC Sports Network. "I think it's a good chance," he said. "I'm OK with that. I'm really comfortable with what I'm doing." In 38 starts, Burton has four wins at New Hampshire, the most among all drivers. His last victory at the mile track in 2000 marked the last time a driver led every lap. "If this is my last race, it's cool with me for it to be here," he said. "This isn't my home track, but this is certainly a track a lot of my career has been shaped at this race track."
ALMIROLA WRECK: Aric Almirola's time as the toast of NASCAR came to a crashing halt when the No. 43 spun and smacked the wall during practice. Almirola won last week at Daytona and qualified 19th for Sunday's race. He will drop to the rear of the field in his backup car. "Our backup car may be even better than our primary car," he said. Almirola won a rain-shortened race, depriving him of a celebratory burnout and a spin around the track with the checkered flag. NASCAR flag man Rodney Wise, in his 21st season, gave Almirola the flag at New Hampshire. "When I got in the race car (Friday) the checkered flag was sitting inside my race car. That was really cool," he said.
LARSON'S SLUMP: Kyle Larson burst onto the scene in a big way, driving more like a championship contender than an ordinary rookie. He had seven top 10s in his first 15 starts and won a pole. There was a runner-up finish at Fontana early in the year, and a fifth and eighth in consecutive races in June. Now comes the slump. Larson has finished 28th, 40th and 36th in the last three races, dropping him from seventh to 17th in the standings. Without a win, he'll need to climb as high as he can in the points race to think about making the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field. He starts 13th on Sunday. "Everybody is going to run into some bad luck. I was just hoping it wouldn't be three weeks in a row worth of bad luck," Larson said.
WRIST WATCH: Joey Logano practiced Saturday with a sprained left wrist following an accident a day earlier. Logano's No. 22 Ford suffered a cut left rear tire and smacked the wall in the opening practice session. He would qualify sixth in a backup.
TIME OFF: Jimmie Johnson plans to relax, not get ready to race next weekend. It's one of the few off weekends of the grueling season. The six-time NASCAR champion wants a few more. "I think we could use six or seven more of them," he said. "Get down to a 25-race schedule or something with more weekends off would be awesome."