Bad luck aside, Vickers on his way to impressive Cup comeback
Bad luck, more than lack of speed, has impacted Vickers' performance this season
NASCAR's one championship rule isn't having the desired effect on Nationwide
Look for Denny Hamlin to get his season back on track with a win at Martinsville
The consensus was that it was going to take Brian Vickers time to work his way back. After he spent nine months out of NASCAR last season with life-threatening blood clots, few believed Vickers could return to his No. 83 Toyota and immediately make noise in the Sprint Cup Series.
The masses were wrong.
Through five races, Vickers sits 24th in the points standings with an average finish of 23rd, his lowest since his first year with Red Bull Racing in 2007 and he's had only two lead-lap finishes. But don't let those numbers fool you; Vickers is coming off his best finish of the season, an eighth place at Fontana, and overall he's run closer to the level that produced a Chase berth in 2009.
"Honestly, I didn't expect to have any ups and downs," Vickers said. "I felt great when I got back in the car. I didn't feel like there was going to be any waiting or learning period or anything like that. I never really saw it that way. I felt like there was no reason we couldn't perform right out of the gate, and we have run well and we have performed to a certain extent. We just haven't had the finishes to show for it."
Misfortune, more than anything, has plagued Vickers in his comeback.
At Daytona, his day was all but over 20 laps in as he was collected in a 14-car wreck. A week later at Phoenix, Vickers was running fifth before an incident with Matt Kenseth on Lap 67 sent him spinning down the backstretch (as for whether he'll issue a retaliation, Vickers says "after reviewing everything, one thing that definitely happened was his tailpipe cut my tire down, which made it seem like it was a lot worse than it was. ... I don't know ... I haven't decided"). At Bristol he was swept up in an accident on the 28th lap.
But it's those races in which he's avoided trouble that paint a different picture, showing maybe Vickers hasn't missed a beat since having his 2010 season cut short after 11 races.
Last week's finish at Auto Club Speedway was his second top-10 in the last three races, along with a 10th at Las Vegas. That gives Vickers more top-10s than five drivers who made last year's playoff. It's also a positive sign that he's well prepared for the intermediate tracks that make up the bulk of the Chase.
"We've actually run really well everywhere we've went this year. The biggest problem we've had is just luck," Vickers said. "If we haven't crashed we've been in the top 10 and any of the races we've crashed, we've had really, really good cars."
But the next step is finding consistency, something that has been an issue since Vickers made the Chase two seasons ago. Dating back to a four-race stretch in the middle of '09, he hasn't put together consecutive top-10 finishes.
That quest begins Sunday at Martinsville. Vickers was sixth last spring on the Virginia short track and has four overall finishes of 11th or better. Another strong run there could also help distance Vickers from that dreaded top-35 Mendoza Line in owners points. He went to Fontana 31st, dangerously close to falling below the threshold that guarantees starting spots beginning this week. He jumped up seven spots, but knows another bad finish could make things uncomfortable.
"We're not completely out of the woods," he said, "and the way the new points system is, you can lose a lot of ground if you have a bad race."
Quick, who's leading the Nationwide Series points standings?
OK ... I'm waiting.
The point is, amid Kyle Busch's domination of the series, the fact that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is leading by six points over Jason Leffler is a distant concern in NASCAR's secondary series.
So much for giving the Nationwide regulars the spotlight.
NASCAR's decision that drivers must decide which series title they'll chase is having a major impact on the Nationwide Series, and it's making it even more confounding to follow. Cup drivers have won all five races this season (three by Busch and one each by Mark Martin and Tony Stewart) and only once has a driver who's actually eligible for points in the series come in second (Justin Allgaier at Las Vegas).
It's a touchy situation. NASCAR certainly doesn't want to hurt the product, and let's face it, having Busch making a run at the series' all-time wins record is reason enough to tune in. But all we're seeing at this point is that the one-title approach isn't working, and Vickers, who won the series title in 2003, agrees.
"I don't think what they did really made any difference," he said. "I agreed with the thought process of doing something, but at the same time, what did they really accomplish? ... I don't think preventing them from running for the championship really solves the problem. To me, if you don't want Cup guys running so many Nationwide races, then just say 'You can run two a month' or 'You can pick 10 a year.' I don't know. ... If you really don't want Cup guys to run Nationwide races, then just tell them they can't."
Vickers sees the positives in having Nationwide drivers gain the experience of racing against the top-level drivers, but wonders if having Cup regulars appear in every race is really what the series needs.
"I think that's a good thing to a certain extent but to always have to have a Cup driver run a full season, whether he can run the championship or not, I don't think is a good thing," he said.
The only legitimate solution -- outside of cutting Cup drivers out entirely, which won't happen -- may be a hard cap on the number of races the upper-level drivers can run in. It certainly wouldn't be a popular move, with track owners, TV execs, sponsors or box offices, but clearly the current system isn't stopping the Cup regulars from still ruling the series, regardless of whether they can compete for a title.
14: Last-lap passes over the past five seasons in Cup races
5: Number of those passes involving Kevin Harvick
4: Times Harvick has been on the winning end of the passes: 2010 at Talladega, the '09 Shootout, the '07 Daytona 500 and last weekend at Fontana.
Denny Hamlin. Hamlin's season has been marred by misfortune, from Joe Gibbs Racing's engine issues to his Shootout yellow-line penalty while going for the win and an early accident at Bristol. Those miscues have everyone's preseason favorite to win the Cup title struggling for any kind of consistency. So why pick him to win at the paper clip? If there's a track where Hamlin is going to get things rolling, it'll be Martinsville, where he can join Fred Lorenzen (1963-65) as the only drivers to win four straight on the short track.