A year ago, Brian Vickers and the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota crew had a date with destiny in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Michigan.
At the time, Vickers was in the thick of a fight for a spot in the Chase for the Cup and he punctuated his run with the team’s maiden victory on the two-mile, tri-oval Michigan International Speedway.
He made the Chase partly on the strength of that first NASCAR win for Red Bull and the team seemed to carry that momentum into 2010 after getting off to a good start this year.
Unfortunately, things went south in May when Vickers was forced onto the sidelines after being diagnosed with blood clots in his leg and lungs. There’s little doubt that losing Vickers threw a giant wrench into the works for 2010. On most weekends, the team has struggled without Vickers, who joined Red Bull at the beginning of its NASCAR program, and the outfit now spends most races mired mid-pack as it tries to get over the obstacle of losing the team leader.
“There is a certain style certain drivers have and you design around that particular individual,” said team general manager Jay Frye. “So, when that individual is removed, yes, it greatly affects you and you end up piecing the rest of the season together to get to the end of the year. [No. 82 Red Bull Toyota driver] Scott [Speed] is developing and still learning, so we have lost that direction that comes from having an experienced driver.
"Reed may be in the car for the rest of the year." –Frye
So far, the No. 83 has had four replacement drivers behind its wheel: Casey Mears, two-time DTM champion Mattias Ekström, Reed Sorenson, and road course ringer Boris Said.
Mears took over when Vickers fell ill and started four races with the team. His best finish was 22nd in Dover, which was his first race in the No. 83. Ekström flew in from Europe to make his NASCAR debut in Sonoma and finished a respectable 21st. Then Sorenson took over for the next five races before Said ran on the road course at Watkins Glen.
Sorenson returns for his sixth start with the team in Michigan this weekend, where he’ll be trying to turn things around a bit following a couple of rough outings in Indianapolis and Pocono. A first-lap crash at Indy and overheating problems in Pennsylvania ruined his last two races. He also hopes to help the team rediscover its form from 2009 at Michigan, especially since the first stop there earlier this season didn’t go well.
“I watched them race there a few weeks ago and they were running in the 30s, so that’s what’s going on right now and we really can’t be thinking about a year ago,” he said.
“I don’t think either car ran very good at Michigan, so I think we are probably going to go in a different direction with the set-up just to try to get back to where they were. A year ago they were pretty fast and Brian is very good at Michigan. He has a pretty good track record there no matter what car he’s in.”
Sorenson hasn’t done badly in Michigan either, with two top-10s in eight starts.
One thing Sorenson will likely avoid is taking out teammate Speed, who was the victim of an unfortunate incident involving Mears in June at Michigan, where the pair got together and the No. 82 Red Bull Toyota spun. Speed will also be looking to start a new streak of race finishes, which was snapped at 24 when his car gave up about halfway through last weekend’s race at The Glen.
While nothing is decided yet when it comes to Speed’s teammate for the rest of 2010, Frye said fans are likely to see Sorenson continue in the No. 83 after Michigan.
“He is doing a really good job for us,” he said. “When you are in this situation, you take it week by week but we don’t have any reason at this point to change from Reed – it is possible that he is in the car for the rest of the year.”
That said, Frye added that there could be some other opportunities that pop up where the team decides to do something different, like last weekend when Said stepped into the car:
“You kind of take it three races at a time when you are in this situation. So that is where we are right now,” he explained.
“Personally, I’ve been through this a couple of times before – 1998 with Ernie Irvan and 2002 with Jerry Nadeau – each time the situation has been very much the same. We as a company and management of the team need to do the best to keep morale up and make sure we are focused on the right things.”