Brian Vickers, interim driver of the No. 14 Janssen Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), finished seventh in Sunday’s 500-lap NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
After a weekend that saw the No. 14 qualify third and never fall out of the top-four in any of the three practices, it wasn’t a surprise Vickers posted the team’s best finish of the season Sunday.
“I was pleased but not satisfied,” Vickers said. “We had such a good car. We were so fast. I don’t know if the track changed or we had different tire codes today. It just wasn’t quite as good as practice all weekend. But I’m really proud of the effort by the guys. We had a great car. It was a top-10. Gosh, we wanted to win this race for Arnie’s Army and everybody. This is a bittersweet, special track for me. I lost my best friend (Ricky Hendrick) here. I really wanted to win for him. But it was still a good day. We’ll take a seventh and move on. The team is getting stronger every week, really. I’m proud of those guys and it’s going to be a strong team.”
The finish also nearly equaled Vickers’ career-best, sixth-place finish at Martinsville in 2006.
Vickers started his 19th career race at Martinsville third and stayed at the front of the field in the early going. He reported his car wasn’t as fast as the other leaders early in the run, but came on strong as the laps clicked by on the half-mile track. He never ventured out of the top-10 as the field set a blazing pace, leaving only 16 of the 39 starters on the lead lap by the lap-200 mark.
The No. 14 crew made several adjustments throughout the race to improve the car’s initial speed on restarts and help Vickers’ drive off of the flat Martinsville corners. Vickers drifted back to 14th by lap 235 but began a climb toward the front. After moving to eighth on lap 335, Vickers reported his car was starting to get loose and warned of a possible cut tire.
He dropped to 15th by the lap-380 mark but avoided an unscheduled pit stop that would have dropped him several laps behind the leader. A caution on lap 383 enabled him to pit under yellow and the crew to make the needed adjustments. Vickers restarted 13th with 110 laps remaining in the race. It didn’t take long to prove the crew had fixed any possible problem as Vickers drove to ninth in the first 20 laps after the restart.
The final fifth of the race saw Vickers hold his position in the top-10 as the laps wound down before passing teammate Kurt Busch for eighth with 60 laps remaining. The race’s seventh caution flew with 43 laps to go, prompting a round of pit stops. A traffic jam at pit exit slowed Vickers and he lined up 11th for the restart with 35 to go. Vickers thrived in the beating and banging during the closing laps, passing Jimmie Johnson for 10th with 18 laps remaining just as a caution flew.
Vickers stayed on the track during the caution and moved to seventh for the restart with 12 laps to go. Even with older tires, he battled his way to fourth before some of the cars with new tires dropped him back to seventh in the final laps.
“We just kind of got out-tired in the end,” Vickers said. “It was worth the shot and I’m glad we did what we did. It was a pretty exciting final few laps, but they always are at Martinsville.”
Vickers and Ty Dillon have served as substitute drivers in 2016 for Tony Stewart, who sustained a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain-vehicle accident. There is no timetable for Stewart’s return to racing. However, a full recovery is expected for the three-time Sprint Cup champion, as is his return to the No. 14 Chevrolet this season.
Sunday was Vickers’ fourth start in the No. 14 this year. His previous best finish was 13th posted two weeks ago at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. He also has finishes of 36th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and 26th in the Daytona 500. Dillon finished 17th at Atlanta Motor Speedway and 15th at Phoenix International Raceway.
Vickers, SHR and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., partnered at the Martinsville and Fontana races to educate race fans about the serious risk for blood clots. Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation continues golf legend Arnold Palmer’s legacy of philanthropy and invests in organizations that help children, youth, families, the environment and communities. Vickers and Palmer met while working together with Janssen to share their personal experiences with blood clots. Janssen has chronicled their stories, and fans can view them at www.TreatMyClot.com.
Vickers led the four-driver SHR contingent on Sunday.