It was an appropriate greeting from Brian Vickers’ Michael Waltrip Racing crew as they greeted him on the front stretch and continued the party in Victory Lane at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“It ain’t a better feel than right here,” Vickers said. “I think I’m out of gas right here, too.”
After a 139-race winless drought for Vickers — which included a medical leave of absence when he was sidelined with blood clots in May 2010 from his ride with Red Bull Racing and that company’s subsequent departure from the sport that left him without a full-time Sprint Cup ride — the 29-year-old found himself back on top on Sunday.
“Everything that a lot of us have gone through and everything that I’ve gone through over the last so many years from the blood clots; and you wake up one morning and you’re just not sure,” Vickers said. “You’re just hoping to be around the next, to are you ever going to race again, to OK, I may race again, to all right I’m racing; now I don’t have a job, to getting a phone call from Ty (Norris, MWR Executive Vice President) and him asking me if I was interested in running eight races. And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
That happened before the 2012 season — and it was just a six-race part-time deal to fill in for races that his teammate Mark Martin didn’t care to run. But Vickers made the most of it. He posted three top-five finishes — so MWR offered Vickers two more races. He responded with top-10 runs in both.
“To go through all that, and to have an opportunity, one of the most exciting things — no offense, Ty — for me, was to work with Rodney (Childers, crew chief),” Vickers said. “I’ve known Rodney since I was about eight years old. The first time he helped my father and another guy named Cory and some folks put my first go kart together at least that’s what they told me. I was too young to remember. But Rodney and I have been trying to work together for a long time. It’s taken us 20 years to do it, and nothing could be more special for me and for both of us to have this win.”
This season, MWR expanded Vickers’ schedule to nine races — with the possibility of a full-time ride next season. On Sunday, Vickers nailed his audition.
He qualified 13th, but received a pass-thru penalty on Lap 75 when the team left a wrench on the decklid of the No. 55 Toyota that dropped him outside of the top 30. It was Childers’ decision to top off for fuel on Lap 211 that allowed Vickers to vault from 24th to fifth when he remained on the track during the next yellow flag on Lap 218 and gain the necessary track position to contend for the finish.
Over the next 67 laps, Vickers moved passed Kyle Busch then made his move on leader Tony Stewart, who had not pitted for fuel since Lap 203 and was in conservation mode.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing to the finish for Vickers. On Lap 297, NASCAR called the 12th and final caution for debris setting the race into overtime.
“Really?” Vickers asked his crew.
“It’s OK, bud,” replied Childers.
And it was. Vickers chose the outside lane for the restart and quickly extended his advantage over Stewart, who ran out of gas on the backstretch. When Stewart stalled, Busch was trapped behind and Vickers sprinted to the finish. Busch, Jeff Burton, Brad Keselowski and Aric Almirola rounded out the top five.
Vickers acknowledged that he’s learned a lot from his experiences over the past three years. He knows who his friends are, who he can trust and who will be there support him to the end.
“When your back is against the wall and everything is down and things are not looking so good, you find out quickly who is willing to vouch for you or not,” Vickers said. “I learned a lot through that experience personally and I grew a lot as a person myself, thankful for that, and with everything that’s happened, I’d like to think that I’ll never forget those learning curves. I doubt that’s going to happen, but all of that, coming here, sitting in Victory Lane, just makes it one of the most special events of my life.”
With his third career Cup win, Vickers is one step closer to his next goal — winning a championship. While he’s not taking for granted the gift of racing, the former Nationwide Series champion wants NASCAR’s big title.
Although Vickers is campaigning part-time, MWR is now eligible for one of the two Wild Card positions in the Chase through owner points. Vickers elevated the No. 55 team to 13th — the second MWR team with a win outside of the top 10 in owner points.
“Just to be back in a race car 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 … I obviously didn’t give up on myself, but when you have so much love and support around you, that makes all the difference in the world. Obviously being able to win after all that is just almost unimaginable. It’s so beyond what I was thinking about in that moment; just getting back into a race car was all I could think about.
"But once I decided to get back in, my goal was to win a championship, and along the way hopefully win some races, and that still is my goal. I know it’s a high goal, but that’s why we’re here.”
THOSE WICKED RESTARTS
New Hampshire Motor Speedway is one of the most difficult tracks for drivers to pass on and Sunday was no exception.
Not surprisingly, as the race wore on the old adage that "cautions breed cautions" came into play as competitors elevated the aggression with each restart.
“You have to get all you can get in the first couple of laps of a restart,” said second-place finisher Kyle Busch. “If you have any chance to get side-by-side with a guy and be able to race him, you’re going to do it.”
That was the case for point leader Jimmie Johnson, who was forced to start 43rd after failing post-qualifying inspection. No other driver made the marked improvement that Johnson did to come from dead last to finish sixth on Sunday.
“You had to make quick work of people on the restarts and then we all kind of fell in line,” Johnson said. “You would have to wait for the guy in front of you to bobble and make a mistake. These guys are all pretty good out there. There were not many opportunities to get.”
Considering how much the track changed as the clouds rolled in and the surface cooled, the characteristics of the drivers’ cars changed as well. Although Busch was able to make some sporty moves in the early stages of the race, his car reacted differently in the end.
“I got side-by-side with a few guys, was able to make some passes on some restarts there in the first couple of laps,” Busch added. “Then Stewart had such a gap on me, I ran him down and once I got to five car lengths, I started stalling out.
“The closest I probably got was about two car lengths and even then it’s like you’re way too far back to try a dive bomb. I tried thinking about it once and I was like, that is the stupidest thing you can think about. That ain’t going to work. So you just keep chugging along and chipping at it and try to get closer.”
And it didn’t work for his brother Kurt either. The restart following the eighth caution jumbled Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch together after the driver of the No. 78 Chevy led the race three times for a race-high 102 laps.
“There was three-wide action, everyone’s going hard,” said Kurt Busch, who finished 31st.
Newman agrees it “was crunch time.” But he didn’t anticipate the outcome. And as everyone knows, Newman never forgets.
“You are in the last window there and everyone was pretty much done on fuel and tires at that point,” Newman said. “I didn’t expect to get hit, but I remember who hit me.”
Post-race banter battle by spotter Chris “Crazy” Osborne (@MattKenseth) and Kevin Hamlin (@KaseyKahne):
@crazy_spotter: @KevinHamlin Sit up front, or was your Purse in the back?
@KevinHamlin: @crazy_spotter oh I roll limo style buddy.
@crazy_spotter: @KevinHamlin Is that Caravan a "Stretch"??
9 — Consecutive top-10 finishes by Kevin Harvick (seventh).
11 — Different Sprint Cup winners in 2013.
23 — Pit road violations by 14 different teams on Sunday.
36 — Races since Jeff Burton’s last podium finish. His last top five was Richmond in May.
After Ryan Newman was collected in a three-car wreck involving Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth on Lap 225, he issued a warning to the drivers that roughed him up prior to his 39th-place finish.
“We just got whacked by a bunch of guys. The No. 18 hit me first, the No. 2 hit me next and then I guess it was Kurt (Busch) that went underneath three-wide and by passed the No. 20 (Kenseth) come and clipped us and knocked us into the fence and took himself out,” Newman said. “That was the best I could tell. I don’t know. I guess the No. 20 had a little influence on it. We kind of were in a bad spot having a little bit older tires. We didn’t have the greatest car … but just a lot of disrespect from a bunch of guys on restarts. What comes around goes around.”