Brian Vickers and The Path Less Traveled
Two years ago, Michael Waltrip Racing announced that Brian Vickers would pilot the #55 Aaron's Toyota full time next year. The agreement with Aaron's was for a full year sponsorship, a rarity in today's world of multi-sponsor rides. For Vickers, the announcement was a culmination of several years of effort. He's taken the road less traveled to reach the pinnacle of stock car racing but that only makes his accomplishments that much more impressive.
Like many other prospects, Vickers first caught the attention of NASCAR fans in the second tier Nationwide series. In 2003, his first full season at the Nationwide level, Vickers won three races and the series championship. He led over 10% of the laps run over the course of the season and finished in the top ten in 21 of the series' 34 races. Team owner Rick Hendrick wasted little time in moving Vickers up to the Sprint Cup level, running the #25 once made famous by Tim Richmond.
Wrecking A Teammate and a Fan Favorite
At only 20 years of age, Brian Vickers had a limitless future. He was a championship driver running for one of NASCAR's best teams (Hendrick as a team won 23 races in 2004 and 2005) and while he did not qualify for the Chase, his year-end series position improved every year. But in 2006, the wheels seemed to come off for Vickers. With no victories, he dropped to the bottom of the pecking order at Hendrick. Wrecking teammate Jimmie Johnson (and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr.) at the fall Talladega race brought the tension to a head and Vickers decided to sign with new team Red Bull Racing for the 2007 season.
Signing with Red Bull had numerous advantages from the outside. Instead of being fourth among four teams, Vickers would be the lead dog of the new team. He would have no worries about sponsorship since the team owner was also the team lead sponsor. Red Bull also had a history of spending whatever was needed to be competitive in a new racing venture. While manufacturer Toyota was new to the series they too invested heavily in their NASCAR Sprint Cup debut so there was every reason to believe that he'd have the tools to be successful.
But the toolbox at Red Bull was not as advertised. Toyota failed to sign a major NASCAR operation to their roster for that season and as a result, there was little speed to be found in the chassis even before the engines were considered. The team failed to qualify for the season-opening Daytona 500 and 12 more races over the course of that first season. There was some improvement over the following year and 2009 proved to be Vickers' best season for Red Bull. He started from the pole six times, including a race at Michigan that he won. He had 13 top ten finishes and ended the season in twelfth, qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his history.
Going into 2010, it seemed that Vickers was once again poised for a breakout but circumstances were about to change once again. An issue with blood clots forced Brian to the sidelines in May of that year, ending both his championship hopes and his season. Medication associated with his treatment meant that if he were to be injured in an accident, medics would be unable to stop the blood from flowing. Healthy enough to travel, Vickers spent much of 2010 watching a series of replacement drivers run at the rear of the field (finishing in the top ten twice in 25 races).
The First Red Bull Winner
Finally cleared to return to racing action, Vickers came into 2011 on a mission. He finally had a teammate in Kasey Kahne who would be an asset both on the racetrack and in shop. Kahne brought along long time chief Kenny Francis, another asset to Red Bull. He had four top tens by June 1st and while his points position was deep in the field, results were improving as Brian spent more time back in the car and the team re-tuned to his style of driving. The Chase was likely out of reach but a win and a handful of top five finishes were not.
For the second year in a row, summer brought bad news. This time, it was an announcement by owner/sponsor Red Bull that the team would be exiting NASCAR at the end of the season. Team employees knew their jobs were gone at the end of the season. Management saw little reason to invest in finding more speed as the goal was to get out of racing, not get deeper into it. While Kahne managed a win late in the season, Red Bull largely went out of NASCAR with a whimper and the team's assets were sold to BK racing in early 2012.
A Taste of Victory
With the dissolution of Red Bull, NASCAR was down two full time rides. Other fringe teams went from attempting a full time schedule to running only select races. Roush Fenway Racing, a former championship winner, ran only three full time teams. There simply was no competitive ride out there for Vickers to take. Lingering concerns over his health (and return to racing) likely contributed to the lack of interest. He likely could have caught on with one of those fringe teams; he was still a marketable driver with a pair of prior Sprint Cup victories. But after his earlier struggles at Red Bull, Vickers instead chose to take a part time ride with Michael Waltrip Racing.
Vickers made the absolute most of his opportunity over the past two years. Despite driving only the races Mark Martin didn't want, Vickers finished inside the top ten in five of eight races in 2012. He improved on that in 2013, winning at New Hampshire just a few weeks ago. He's also proven himself to team owner Michael Waltrip and lead sponsor Aaron's. The rental company has been with Waltrip's team since its inception and their willingness to sign on for two more years is an affirmation both of the team and of the driver behind the wheel. If MWR were to win a Sprint Cup title in 2013 the win would surprise no one. Putting Vickers in the #55 full time is not a decision that team makes lightly and it's one that he has earned.
He's no longer a “young gun” or up and coming talent. Most fans have already forgotten his run to a Nationwide title a decade ago and few remember the promise that accompanied his Sprint Cup debut. Yet of the drivers who joined him as a 2004 Sprint Cup rookie, only Kahne has more wins. None have faced the kind of adversity that he's faced both on a personal and a professional level. His path to one of the best rides in Sprint Cup was not an easy one, nor was it the typical one. But for Brian Vickers, the path less traveled has proven to be the right one all along.