KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina (Feb. 17, 2015) – 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.
Brian Vickers, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How did it feel to be back in the car this weekend in Daytona?
"Damn good. I mean it was great. It was like riding a bicycle except at 200 mph. It might have taken a lap or two, but I felt right at home pretty quickly."
What are your thoughts on Saturday's Sprint Unlimited?
"We were fast Saturday night. The car felt really comfortable. I think contact early in the race cut the tire. When that happens, there isn't much you can do. It was a hard hit but I'm fine. Not the way we wanted to finish but, again, it was really good to be out there racing."
Are you enjoying your return to racing?
"You know, as busy as everyone is with the racing schedule and all kind of commitments, it's easy to forget how much fun this sport really is and how much you enjoy the people. I just want to enjoy every moment of Speedweeks while I am down here."
What are your long-term plans?
"Right now, the only thing I know for sure is I am going to race in Sunday's Daytona 500 for Stewart-Haas Racing. That's pretty cool. We'll figure everything else out later. All of my energy and focus is just getting the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet to victory lane. Everything else will take care of itself."
Have you spoken to Tony?
"Yes, Sarah (wife) and I visited with Tony last week. He was in really good spirits and I know he can't wait to get back in the car. It's really a big honor to race for him. Tony and I have had an interesting relationship over the years. We've had our disagreements on the track but we have always been friends. I really like him and I believe there is a mutual respect there. This is his racecar. I'm keeping the seat warm for when he returns."
What is your strategy for the Daytona 500?
"I talked to 'Buga' (crew chief Mike Bugarewicz) and the guys on the No. 14 and we all kind of agreed to forget about hanging out at the back and waiting for the finish. I say we just go to the front at the start of the race and stay there. Seriously, I don't know if there is a 'safe' place out on the track, so you might as well go take the lead and race with the guys up front."
No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Racing Team Report
Round 1 of 36 – Daytona 500
Car No.: 14 – Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing
Teammates: Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Jimmy John's Chevrolet SS
Danica Patrick, No. 10 Nature's Bakery Chevrolet SS
Kurt Busch, No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Chevrolet SS
The Daytona 500 will mark Vickers' 319th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start and 17th career Sprint Cup start at Daytona.
Vickers owns career totals of three wins, 12 poles, 29 top-five finishes, 77 top-10s and 1,242 laps led in 318 Sprint Cup races.
His most recent Sprint Cup victory came at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (July 14, 2013)
Vickers also owns victories at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway (Oct. 8, 2016) and Michigan International Speedway (Aug. 16, 2009)
His most recent Sprint Cup pole came at Talladega (Oct. 19, 2014).
Oh So Close: Aric Almirola led Vickers by just a few feet when rain brought out the caution on lap 113 to end the July 6, 2014 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. The race never restarted and Vickers' second-place finish was a career-best at Daytona. It also marked his most recent Daytona race.
Vickers has a top-five finish, four top-10s and has led a total of 34 laps in his 16 career Sprint Cup starts at Daytona. His average start is 24.1, his average finish is 19.4 and he has a lap completion rate of 92.7 percent.
Thursday will mark Vickers' 10th start in the Can-Am Duels. In 2009, he finished third – his best career result.
Vickers' last Sprint Cup race came at Phoenix International Raceway (March 15, 2015) for Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR).
Familiar Faces: Vickers' most recent victory came with Rodney Childers serving as crew chief. Vickers' most recent pole came with Billy Scott serving as crew chief. In 2016, Childers and Scott, who were with Vickers at MWR at the time of the victory and pole, are now crew chiefs at Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR). Childers oversees the No. 4 Chevrolet and Scott the No. 10 Chevrolet.
Sunday will mark the crew chief debut of Mike Bugarewicz. The Lehighton, Pennsylvania native served at the lead engineer on SHR's No. 4 the last two seasons.