Sunday marked the sixth anniversary of Brian Vickers becoming NASCAR’s youngest ever champion.
Funny, he didn’t feel much like celebrating.
Maybe that’s because the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway offered only more Chase for the Cup frustration for the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota driver. Vickers got caught up in a 10-car pile-up on the front straight about halfway through the race and sustained heavy damage to the left front of the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota. The wreck started when Dale Earnhardt got loose and turned sideways with the field rounding turn four. As the cars behind tried to slow to avoid the spinning No. 88, Vickers found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up hard into the wall.
“It’s definitely frustrating — we really had nowhere to go,” Vickers said. “I don’t know if he lost it on his own or somebody got into him. I tried to get out of it, but the whole track was blocked. It was just one big jam up. I got hit from behind and knocked into the crash.”
With the car beyond repair, Vickers climbed out once he reached the pits. Not exactly the kind of day he wanted to have in his penultimate Chase race of 2009, especially on the sixth anniversary of his maiden Nationwide Series championship. Vickers won the Busch (now Nationwide) Series title with an 11th place finish in the season-ending Ford 300 on Nov. 15, 2003 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"It was just one big jam up." --Brian Vickers
He ended the day 38th. The early exit saw Vickers drop another 146 points to championship leader Jimmie Johnson, who took the win in Phoenix. Vickers now lies 666 points behind first. But that wasn’t a huge deal since trying to gain on the leaders lost its importance when Vickers was officially eliminated from title contention after the race in Talladega two weeks ago.
“Our focus since we’ve been mathematically out of the championship has been on 2010, not even 2009. Obviously we’d still like to win another race, but our focus has been to really try stuff,” he said. “We have nothing to lose. Obviously we want to win races, but we’re not going to be any worse in the points so we’re trying to develop stuff for 2010.”
That’s a good thing, because the goal of finishing in the top-10 in the Chase also looks out of reach, with 11th-place Carl Edwards now 146 points ahead and Kasey Kahne now 190 up in 10th.
“We had a good car. Track position was really, really important because it was very difficult to pass out there,” Vickers said.
At the time of the accident, he was running 25th and having a steady race on the tricky one-mile oval with a kink on the back straight. Phoenix is much like Pocono, where drivers have to find the right compromise in the set-up to get through its turns quickly. Add an older track and worn pavement to the mix and it makes for an unpredictable race where accidents happen.
“I think it’s getting slicker and slicker every year we come back, especially in the fall race after a long, hard summer. You know how hot it is here in the summer, how the sun just bakes this track. It’s going to continue to be a problem but it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Vickers said.
“A hot, slick track like this makes for a good race, but you have to have the proper tires. I like having tires that fall off, but you still want to have a little bit of grip to start with. These tires were still pretty slick to start with.”
No. 82 Red Bull Toyota driver Scott Speed fared better through the wreck on lap 170 than Vickers, after he was spun by Joey Logano at the tail end of the incident and tagged his teammate. He was able to continue and finish 33rd. Speed gained on 35th in owner points, but only marginally with the gap closing by just three. He is now 114 points out with only Miami left to erase the deficit.
Follow the progress of Brian Vickers and Scott Speed at Team Red Bull Racing.