After an incredible 10-race run to make Chase for the Cup, Team Red Bull and Brian Vickers have stumbled through the first five races of NASCAR’s championship playoff.
With Vickers mired in 12th and last place in the Chase standings, 485 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, it might seem that all the team’s hard work went for naught.
But veteran Canadian racer Ron Fellows feels that discounting the accomplishment of making the Chase as a third year team would be a mistake. “They have done an awesome job, and it will just help them raise their game,” says Fellows, a road course ringer in Sprint Cup and Nationwide events. He has four Nationwide victories to his credit.
“The fact that they made the Chase and get to be part of it – and the increase in intensity that’s required to compete for the Sprint Cup title – is going to help get them to another level.”
With an 11th in the Chase opener being the best the team could muster so far, Team Red Bull isn’t there yet. Nevertheless, just getting there remains an accomplishment worthy of praise. Despite being almost 500 points behind in the Chase, no one in the Red Bull garage should be hanging their head, Fellows said, since a team winning a race and making the Chase in what still amounts to its infancy years is no small feat.
'Just take a look at the names that didn’t make it'
“I am sure they will all look back and say: ‘Wow, in 2008 we weren’t part of this and look at what we’ve learned’,” Fellows suggests. “It is so competitive and think about the level of consistency in performance you need to get into the top-12 – look at the names with them and take a look at the names that didn’t make it.”
For Team Red Bull to have gone from zero to the Chase in three years of NASCAR Sprint Cup competition points to a bright future. To put things in perspective, the team watched both Red Bull Toyotas fail to make the 43-car field in what was supposed to be their 2007 debut at the Daytona 500. Today, Vickers No. 83 Toyota is one of the 12 elite who get a shot at the series championship.
“When they started out, they stank and I think Brian Vickers would be the first guy to tell you that,” Fellows says. “I think one of the smart things they did was to get Brian. He’s a talented young guy and he had also been driving for the best team in the business, Hendrick. He’s been very patient and he’s a really nice guy. It was cool to see they made the Chase.”
Vickers got an invite to the party with an inspired run that erased a 197-point deficit to the 12th and final Chase spot. In the end, he squeaked in by a scant eight points.
Along the way, that incredibly emotional streak may have drained the team’s mental tanks a little too much. With a tight schedule not allowing for a moment’s rest, bouncing back in a couple of days and embarking on an effective championship challenge would strain even the most grizzled veterans.
“They had to throw everything at it just to make the Chase and I am sure there was a big sigh of relief when they made it,” says Fellows. “But then you have to get right at it again. I'm sure they were probably feeling that they were just a little behind going into each event.”
There’s also a huge difference between making the Chase and winning the title. And Fellows suggests that the team’s short history may be playing a decisive role in its struggles in the first five races.
'They are pushing the envelope on performance and learning from that'
Experience, he insists, also allows teams to bring their playoff game instantly. And because the top teams usually know they will make the Chase long before the Race 26 cut-off, they often keep a bit in reserve, rest their crews and begin to think strategy in the stretch run. “I’m sure teams save stuff and learn along the way and there may be places that they don’t show all they have,” he says. “If you’re an experienced team, you are already going to have another plan for the playoffs.”
Experienced teams also don’t commit rookie errors, like having a shock mount break in a critical race, something that erased Vickers' impressive early performance in California two weeks ago. That will come with experience, which will help the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota and its talented young driver when they return to the Chase for a second shot.
And when that happens, Fellows thinks the tough lessons of the 2009 championship will simply help the Red Bull crew mount a better challenge for the NASCAR title.
“I’m sure they are pushing the envelope on performance and learning from that. There’s the regular season and then there’s the playoffs, and it’s a different game,” he says. “That’s what they are experiencing now. It’s: ‘Now we’re here and, oh, look where we need to go next.’ But, it’s just a huge shot in the arm to be part of it.”