The 100,000 fans attending Sunday’s 58th running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, plus the millions of television viewers and radio listeners around the world, will root for their favorite driver to win the Harley J. Earl trophy in NASCAR’s “Great American Race.”
Few might have Brian Vickers’ name at the top of their wish list to take the checkered flag in the NASCAR Sprint Cup season-opener, but it would be difficult to find a more popular victory Sunday – not to mention well-deserved.
Vickers’ battle over the last several years to remain in the sport he loves is a profile in perseverance that rivals any in racing or the entire sports world.
Throughout the last few years of his career, blood-clot-related issues have forced Vickers to climb out of a full-time Sprint Cup ride to focus on healing his body. But each time he’s recovered and returned.
This weekend, he’ll add a new chapter to the story when he substitutes for the injured Tony Stewart, driving the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR). The three-time champion underwent surgery after sustaining a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in an all-terrain vehicle accident Jan. 31 while vacationing on the West Coast.
Named Friday as a replacement for Stewart, SHR picked Vickers for his experience and ability to blend with a new team quickly. The Chevrolet-powered team looked strong in Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited, moving from the 18th starting spot to fourth before a cut tire led to a crash that ended the race for Vickers. He’ll start 22nd Thursday in the second of two Can-Am Duels that determine the Daytona 500 starting lineup.
In his 10th try, this year might be Vickers’ best shot to win the Daytona 500.
He’ll access the technology that produces fast cars at SHR – the powerhouse team that won Sprint Cup titles in 2011 with Stewart and in 2014 with Kevin Harvick and finished second last season. The Kannapolis, North Carolina team also returns Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick.
Mike Bugarewicz takes over the No. 14 crew chief duties in 2016 after serving as the lead engineer for SHR’s No. 4 team since its inception in 2014. The Penn State engineer will work closely with Rodney Childers – Harvick’s crew chief – as well as SHR’s Sprint Cup crew chiefs Tony Gibson and Billy Scott.
With those resources and Vickers’ restrictor-plate-racing prowess, the Miami resident and 2003 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion is far from a longshot in the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing.”
Vickers’ last appearance on the 2.5-mile Daytona track saw him come within a split-second of victory. Rain forced a caution as Vickers drove-side-by-side with Aric Almirola for first place on lap 112 of the July 2014 Coke Zero 400. Had the caution flown a moment later, it would have been Vickers who claimed victory in the rain-shortened race.
The 33-year-old’s restrictor-plate abilities were evident early in his career when he earned his first Sprint Cup victory surviving a last-lap battle with then-teammate Jimmie Johnson and restrictor-plate ace Dale Earnhardt Jr., to win at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in October 2006.
Vickers will enjoy strong corporate support in Daytona with two of SHR’s longtime partners: Bass Pro Shops and Mobil 1. With a fast car, experienced teammates, a smart crew chief and strong corporate support, Vickers hopes to author a comeback story Sunday that would make for an ending fit for Hollywood.