In NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup, a driver’s performance is usually defined by his bad races, not his good ones.
Luckily for Red Bull’s Brian Vickers, a disappointing outing lately means finishing in the top-12. And, after holding the hot hand in the races leading into NASCAR’s championship playoff, don’t expect the No. 83 Toyota driver to let off the throttle one bit.
“You have to push, you have to run hard,” he said. “You're not going to be able to cruise to a bunch of top-10s or 10th-place finishes and be able to win the championship. You're still going to have to push, but you can't make mistakes.”
Last weekend in Richmond, Vickers slipped into the Chase by a scant eight points after 26 races and 7,336 laps of racing.
As Kenseth opened the door with a poor performance in Richmond, Vickers and arch rival of late, Kyle Busch, battled for final Chase spot, bumping each other in and out of a title berth all night. In the end, Busch’s fifth-place wasn’t enough to get the job done.
Although Busch and Vickers raced hard and clean for the two starts following their fender banging in Michigan’s Nationwide race, when a spot in the Chase was on the line, they minded their manners. With Vickers in and Busch out, an opportunity to shove a stick in Vickers’ spokes might have been hard to ignore – a fact which didn’t escape Vickers afterwards.
“I shook Kyle's hand when we got in. It's no secret that him and I don't always see eye-to-eye and don't always get along and we had our scuffle at Michigan,” Vickers said. “You know — my side and on his side — he raced me hard and clean and I returned the favor and vice versa. That was the past couple of weeks. Maybe we'll be fine and maybe we won't, but we have been fine the past couple of weeks.”
The Chase for the Cup features the top-12 drivers at the end of 26 races competing for the season title. The qualifying drivers’ points are “reset” to 5,000 with 10 bonus points added for each victory. That formula has Vickers eighth with 5,010 points, 30 behind leader Mark Martin who won four times in 2009.
Competition will be tough, with reigning three-time champ Jimmie Johnson, four-time Cup winner Jeff Gordon, two-time champion Tony Stewart and 2004 winner Kurt Busch in the field.
That said, momentum continues to be Vickers’ best friend after he gained the most points of any driver in the nine races before the Chase, which included the team’s maiden NASCAR Cup win in Michigan last month.
Unfortunately, the first stop in the Chase, New Hampshire Speedway, was not kind to the Red Bull driver in the Sprint Cup’s first visit in late June. Caught in a huge wreck on Lap 175 that caused a red flag and eliminated several drivers, Vickers got back on track to complete another 15 laps but then retired. He ended the day 35th. The good news is that Vickers erased the Loudon disappointment by starting his incredible nine-race run into the Chase at the next stop in Daytona.
'Two-and-a-half years ago we didn't even have a car in the race shop, now we are in the Chase' – Brian Vickers
The pressure will also be on team-mate Scott Speed in the final 10 races for a different reason. The rookie needs to gain 115 points to finish 35th in owner points and ensure he gets a free pass into the first five races of 2010. Without that magic top-35 finish, he’ll be forced to qualify for those races.
“If we don’t get wrecked and don’t have any mechanical problems we should have no problems making it,” said the former Toro Rosso man. “For me, it’s a really exciting time because I’ve been able to learn so much this year. It’s so clear to see the progress.
“It’s something that I haven’t done in my career since I was nine years old. When you see all that, it really makes it easy to go to work each day and keep working at it.”
Like Vickers, Speed’s June trip to New Hampshire only resulted in frustration. A few laps after Vickers’ car went through the sheet-metal grinder, Speed’s No. 82 Red Bull Toyota spun into the wall and retired. He finished 36th.
With Speed continuing to improve in his rookie year and Vickers sitting in a Chase berth, the No. 83 driver feels that 2009 is already a roaring success. “Two-and-a-half years ago we didn't even have a car in the race shop, now we sat on six poles this year, won a race, are in the Chase.
“By all rights, I think that's a very successful year already for a team without the depth and the experience that our competitors have,” Vickers said.
“I think we're all very excited about it at Red Bull and Toyota, a new manufacturer as well. Moving forward, obviously we'd like to win the championship — that's our ultimate goal — but for where we're at as a programme, you'd be hard-pressed no matter what happens moving forward to not consider this a successful year.”