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MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Eight months is a long time. That’s longer than a hockey season and almost as long as a pregnancy. But that’s how long Brian Vickers was out of a race car.

So his mind did the racing for him.

“There was a point in time where I didn’t know if I was ever coming back, not just because of the doctors, but I questioned if I wanted to come back,” Vickers said. “Maybe it was time to just start a new chapter in my life. Is it worth going back and trying again? What would happen to me emotionally?”

He contemplated college, getting his MBA and joining the business world. He dabbled in TV, too, and even thought about becoming a NASCAR analyst.

Indeed, doubt moved in and bought the building. But what brought the 27-year-old Vickers back from a blood clot condition that robbed him of two-thirds of his seventh season in the Sprint Cup Series, what pushed him through doctor’s appointments, surgeries and more doctor’s appointments, what allowed him to somehow stomach watching other guys drive his car is simple:

Brian Vickers is a racer.

“Just my love for racing. Just being in a car going 200 miles an hour,” he said.

Off the sick list, carrying a clean bill of health and riding the drive and determination that’s been simmering since the day he broke the bad news, Vickers will race for the first time in Thursday’s 150-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway — his first competitive laps in 285 days.

“You look for all these words and ways to describe your emotions, your feelings, and sometimes there’s just nothing to say,” Vickers said. “I don’t know how else to put it. Everyone keeps asking me how does it feel to be back. I guess it feels damn good.”

‘THIS IS MY LIFE’

A year and a half earlier, Vickers and the No. 83 team joined NASCAR’s elite by making the Chase for the Sprint Cup. What got him there was a late-summer surge of nine consecutive finishes of 12th or better that started in Daytona (seventh) and ended in dramatic fashion in the Chase’s cutoff race at Richmond (also seventh).

In that streak was the team’s first victory, when Vickers led the final three laps to win the August race at Michigan International Speedway.

So it came as no surprise that Vickers had high hopes for 2010. He opened with a 15th-place finish in the Daytona 500, and while it wasn’t the stellar start he planned Vickers had six top 15s in the first 11 races.

Then, as he often does, Vickers traveled to Washington, D.C., for a little “me” time and to see the sights. But he began experiencing chest pains and was hospitalized May 12 — four days after finishing 10th at Darlington — after testing revealed blood clots. He was released and returned to Charlotte, N.C. But the pains resurfaced the next day, and Vickers was admitted to Carolinas Medical Center, where he spent another two days.

During All-Star weekend May 21, Vickers announced that he’d climb out of the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota for the remainder of the season while undergoing a lengthy and involved blood-thinning treatment process that made it impossible for him to race for fear that he might be injured in a crash.

“It sucks. This is what I love to do,” he said that day. “I’ve never, throughout my entire career, been on the sidelines. That’s what hurts the most. This is my life, and I fully intend on being able to do it again.”

The treatment also included a July 12 procedure to repair a hole in is heart and the insertion of a stent into his left leg one day later. In the end, Vickers was diagnosed with May-Thurner Syndrome, a clotting disorder that increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis. He said he opted for surgery because it improved his prospects for a long-term recovery and return to racing.

Vickers killed time by visiting the track a handful of times. Taking in a race from the pit box or spotter’s stand, he admitted, was agonizing. He trained constantly and crossed off a few items on his to-do list, attending Formula One’s Canadian Grand Prix, the Red Bull X-Fighters event in Rome and Red Bull Air Race in New York City.

“Being able to step back and lose what you love most really makes you appreciate it,” he said.

In Vickers’ absence, five drivers took turns in the No. 83: Reed Sorenson (13 races), Kasey Kahne (five), Casey Mears (four), Mattias Ekstrom (two) and Boris Said (1). The car’s best showing was Kahne’s sixth-place finish in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and it ended up 25th in the final car owner standings.

“Watching a race that you’re supposed to be in from the sidelines, sucks. It’s horrible,” Vickers admitted. “I’ve used this quote several times and I want to give the guy credit that said it first because it’s true, but he said it the best. Dale Earnhardt said one time when he was out of the car that it was like watching his wife cheat on him. That’s pretty much what it felt like sitting on top of that box, I know exactly what he went through.”

‘A GREAT TIME IN HIS CAREER’

Treatment wrapped up in November, and Vickers’ eight-month emotional roller coaster finally ended Jan. 10. Not at Charlotte or Daytona, but during a private two-day test session at the uniquely shaped Walt Disney World Speedway, which is most noted for its IndyCar and NASCAR Truck racing in the late 1990s. Some call it “the Mickyard.” Either way, Vickers felt the magic that day at the 1-mile, three-turn track.

He had worried about things not “fitting” in the car. But sure enough, the seat still fit his lean frame. The belts buckled. The clutch was the pedal on the left. The tachometer moved in a clockwise direction. And the start switch was within arm’s reach.

“Just to fire the car back up was awesome, and then to punch it for the first time was such a great feeling,” he said.

Disney was the first step for Vickers in the road back to racing. Step two came Jan. 20-22 during a massive three-day test at Daytona. He walked with a noticeable confidence and enthusiasm, and backed it up on the newly paved track as his No. 83 was one of the top cars all week.

Teammate and No. 4 driver Kasey Kahne has noticed how much Vickers’ enthusiasm has rubbed off on the team, but “couldn’t imagine being out for eight months at this time of your career.”

“That’s a great time in his career and where he’s at in racing,” Kahne said. “I think it would be really difficult to be out, but at the same time things happen, you get it fixed up and you go on. And, that’s what he’s done. I think he’s got to be relieved and just excited as can be to be back in the car. I’m looking forward to working with him and having a great season together.”

‘I JUST WANT TO WIN A CHAMPIONSHIP’

The 2011 season is a fresh start on a NASCAR career that boomed in 2003 with Vickers winning the championship in what is now called the Nationwide Series. He became the youngest NASCAR champion at age 20, got the call to Cup with Hendrick Motorsports and became one of the first few employees at Red Bull Racing Team in 2007.

“Where we’re at right now, I really believe is as good as we’ve ever been as an organization,” Vickers said. “From a direction, a culture, a structure, a passion, a drive … I think the enthusiasm within the team on both cars within the race shop is the highest it’s ever been. Having two experienced guys that can lean on each other is the best it’s ever been.”

In 219 starts spanning seven seasons, Vickers owns two Cup victories, 18 top fives, 50 top 10s and 11 poles.

But much is left to accomplish.

“I just want to win a championship,” he said. “I do believe that the experience has made me a better person. When things are their worst, right in the midst of the battle, is typically where you learn a lot about yourself. I think that’s going to show up on the race track, in my driving, my determination and my focus in a lot of things.”

BV BY THE NUMBERS
While Brian Vickers was out of the car:

3 — Health updates/pressers that BV gave the media (May 21, 2010, at Charlotte; Aug. 21, 2010, at Bristol; and Jan. 20 at Daytona).
4 — Countries BV visited (Italy, Canada, The Bahamas and Panama).
4 — Sporting events BV attended (Formula One Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal; Red Bull X-Fighters, Rome; Red Bull Air Race World Series, New York; Winter X-Games, Aspen, Colo.).
6 — Drivers in the No. 83 car last season (BV, Casey Mears, Reed Sorenson, Mattias Ekstrom, Boris Said and Kasey Kahne).
285 — Days between BV’s last race (Darlington, May 8, 2010) and first race back (Duels, Feb. 17).

BV TIMELINE
Charting Brian Vickers’ road back to racing:

MAY 8, 2010 — BV’s last race of 2010 at Darlington Raceway. He qualifies third and finishes sixth.
MAY 12, 2010 — BV is hospitalized in Washington, D.C.
MAY 16, 2010 — BV misses his first race of the season. Casey Mears, at Dover, is the first fill-in driver.
MAY 21, 2010 — At Charlotte, BV announces that he is out for the remainder of the 2010 season while he undergoes treatment for blood clots in his lungs and left leg. “Due to what’s happened and due to the blood thinners that I’m on, I will be out of the car for a minimum of six months, for the rest of the year,” he says.
AUG. 21, 2010 — At Bristol, BV announces he underwent heart surgery and had a stent inserted in his left leg. “A lot has happened since I saw you last,” he says. “I have had heart surgery and a stent put in — never thought I would have had either at age 26, but both went extremely well.”
JAN. 10, 2011 — BV’s first test at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla. “Today was just a huge weight off of my shoulders. Not only for myself, but for the guys on the team,” he says. “There were so many rumors, assumptions and speculations about my health and status for 2011, but today hopefully put all of them to rest. It felt damn good to get back in the car.”
FEB. 17, 2011 — BV’s first race back, the Duels at Daytona.


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