LOUDON, N.H. — Brian Vickers had already come so far, resuscitating a racing career that was in peril of being derailed by a serious health issue in 2010.
Eleven races into that NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Vickers got knocked out of the saddle of his ride with the now-defunct Red Bull Racing team when he was diagnosed with blood clots in his legs and near his lungs, forcing him to miss the remainder of the season.
Even though his health was at risk, Vickers admitted, “just getting back into a racecar was all I could think about.’’
But winning a race? At the time, it seemed beyond the realm of possibility.
After all, 139 races had passed since his last visit to Victory Lane Aug. 16, 2009, at Michigan International Speedway, a span in which he made only 75 starts.
“Just to be back in a racecar for me, personally, was a big goal and a big accomplishment and a big step,’’ Vickers said. “And it was because no one around me would let me give up on myself.’’
Vickers rewarded the unwavering faith of his supporters and employers at Michael Waltrip Racing when he went the extra mile in his No. 55 Toyota to record the third victory of his NASCAR career in Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“Obviously being able to win after all that is just almost unimaginable,’’ said Vickers, who was contracted to run six races for MWR in 2012 but earned two additional dates before being hired to run nine races this season in the No. 55, which he shared with veteran driver Mark Martin and his team owner Michael Waltrip. “It was so beyond what I was thinking about in that moment [in the hospital].’’
After being hit with a pass-through penalty on Lap 77 that dropped him a lap behind the leaders, Vickers climbed from 24th to fifth with 86 laps to go, passing Tony Stewart for the lead with 14 laps to go. The race’s 12th and final caution for debris on Lap 298 forced Vickers to stave off Stewart, runner-up Kyle Busch, and third-place finisher Jeff Burton in a thrilling green-white-checkered finish, which extended the 301-mile race by an extra mile.
“Just wish the race was two laps longer,” said Busch, who won Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at NHMS under similar circumstances after outlasting the field following a maximum attempt at three green-white-checkered finishes. “Maybe Vickers would have run out [of gas] and we would have been able to win the thing.’’
Stewart, who led for 84 laps, ran out of gas on the backstretch of the final lap and finished 26th. He dropped from 10th to 13th in the Sprint Cup driver standings, three points behind Jeff Gordon for 12th, the last of two wild-card spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
“Gosh, the last person I want to have to battle on a green-white-checkered is Tony Stewart,’’ Vickers said. “That guy, when he digs deep, he finds something that most people just don’t find and that’s not what I wanted beside me.
“At the same time, I knew that he was not going to go off there and just hit me,’’ Vickers added. “He was not going to run me off the racetrack and he was not going to wreck me, and that’s the double-edged sword I’m talking about. But I thank him for racing me clean and hard.’’
Vickers went high on the restart and had Burton behind him.
Stewart went low and Busch attempted to make it three-wide as they roared into Turn 1. Vickers, however, powered his way around the top to come out first at the exit of Turn 2.
“When they went into the corner three-wide, I was just hoping someone didn’t make a mistake,’’ said Ty Norris, MWR’s executive vice president for business development and general manager, who watched anxiously from his perch atop the press box where he observed the restart with the team’s spotters.
“I had never seen the top side of three-wide come out of Turn 2 ahead, ever, here,’’ Norris said. “And when he came out of Turn 2 with the lead, and those two were jockeying behind him, it was like he hit a 3-point shot at the buzzer to win the national championship. I mean, I was fist-pumping and pumped up for it. I knew that was the moment.’’
When Vickers crossed the granite stripe at the start-finish line of NHMS’s 1.058-mile oval, Norris radioed to his driver, “Hey career, welcome back, baby!’’
It begged the question: Had Vickers done enough to cement a full-time ride in the No. 55 for 2014?
“He’s been our focus, and we would love to have him in the car, but we need commercial support,’’ Norris said. “This is true for every race team, true for every probably sports entity, but certainly for NASCAR race teams. You do nothing without sponsors, and that’s why we do so much for them.
“So if I had a crystal ball, that’s where we’d want to go and that’s what I see in the future, for sure.’’
While Vickers knew his victory at NHMS did not guarantee him an ironclad contract to run full-time with MWR next season, it didn’t deter him from savoring it, even after his car shut down as he attempted to celebrate with a burnout.
“I don’t know what happened,’’ Vickers said. “Either I forgot how to do a burnout, which is possible, or I ran out of gas, or something happened. I did that burnout and it just shut off.’’
After trying unsuccessfully to re-ignite his engine, Vickers unbuckled himself from his seat and climbed out of his car. After coming so far, and enduring so much, it was nothing for Vickers to walk a few hundred feet back to the flag stand to collect the checkered flag.
“Once it was over, I think it was a sigh of relief with everything that had happened to finally, you know, clinch another victory after so long and so much,’’ Vickers said. “It was a lot of thankfulness. I don’t know if that’s the right word to articulate it.
“I was just thankful for everything that had happened and everything that didn’t happen; that I was able to get back into a race car, and that I had the support of my family and friends to get through everything and to get back in the car.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.