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Inching forward

Brian Vickers, whose only Nextel Cup victory came with controversy, takes his chances with a new Toyota team

February 22, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

When Brian Vickers recalls his first Nextel Cup win -- a moment last October that should have been triumphant yet was soured by controversy -- he sums it up simply: "It was half an inch."

Vickers was half an inch too close to the back bumper of teammate Jimmie Johnson on the final lap of the UAW-Ford 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

As the pair pulled out to pass leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., Vickers clipped Johnson's car, sending it into Earnhardt's. Those two spun, Vickers cruised past for the win and the Earnhardt-partisan crowd -- and Johnson -- were furious.

Now, Vickers is trying to dull that memory with a second victory after joining one of the new Toyota teams, Red Bull, to drive the No. 83 Camry.

"It was time for me to make a change and this was the best opportunity," he said. "This is a fresh start for me."

But it's developing slowly. Vickers failed to qualify for the season-opening Daytona 500 after cutting a tire and hitting the wall during his qualifying heat, so he'll be starting his season Sunday in the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway, already down in the standings.

Regardless, Toyota and Red Bull are confident of Vickers' skill.

He is "extremely mature" despite being 23 and "has a sense of not only what racing is all about, but also is very learned, very knowledgeable" about cars and track conditions, which are key assets for a new team, said Jim Aust, chief executive of Toyota Racing Development.

Looking back at Talladega, Vickers said he never intended to cause an accident.

The race was crucial for Johnson and Earnhardt, because they were in NASCAR's Chase for the Cup, the late-season playoff in which the top 10 drivers in points battled for the title in the final 10 races.

Leading a three-car draft up front was Earnhardt, the overriding favorite of the 160,000 fans. Drafting him -- riding almost on his rear bumper -- was Johnson, and drafting Johnson was Vickers. On the back straightaway of the last lap, Johnson and Vickers pulled out in tandem to pass Earnhardt and race for the checkered flag.

But as they did, Vickers' No. 25 Chevrolet nudged Johnson's bumper, sending Johnson's No. 48 Chevy sideways into Earnhardt's No. 8 Chevy at nearly 200 mph.

Earnhardt and Johnson went sliding into the infield in a cloud of smoke and dust, and Vickers scored his first win in his 107th Cup start.

But for Vickers, there was little to cheer about.

Plastic bottles and other debris rained on the track, thrown by angry Earnhardt fans. Boos rained on Vickers as he climbed from his Chevrolet in victory circle, an anger clearly heard by a nationwide television audience.

Johnson could barely hide his anger. Without mentioning Vickers by name, Johnson said he expected "someone would be a little more patient than they were."

Some writers said that Vickers, eager for his first Cup win, had "misjudged" how close to follow Johnson and others said he'd made a mistake.

It didn't help that Vickers already had announced plans to leave Hendrick Motorsports to join Red Bull, and that he already had been barred from Hendrick's weekly team meetings. There was an unspoken suspicion that Vickers had taken Johnson out intentionally.

But after the race, Earnhardt, commonly known as Junior, said that although Vickers might have been "excited" and "anxious," the accident was "just racing" and wasn't anyone's fault.

"I would have loved to try to pass Jimmie but we had to get past Junior first," Vickers said. "We pulled out, [Jimmie] got beside Junior and Junior started to block ... then Junior realized pretty quick he wasn't going to be able to."

Then, "Jimmie hit a wall of air and it slowed his car down more than we anticipated," Vickers said.

And, Vickers added, for an instant he was still in Earnhardt's draft, meaning Vickers' car was now just a tick faster than Johnson's.

That tick equaled the "half an inch," the difference between following Johnson cleanly and hitting him, Vickers said.

"I just scraped the back bumper," he said. "It all happened so quick."

Despite the controversy, nearly everyone at Hendrick congratulated him, as did countless fans, Vickers said.

"Everyone was just so excited," he said. "They said, 'Hey, don't worry about it, we know you didn't mean to do it. Have fun, enjoy it.'

"Really, the only two in the whole organization who weren't excited, I think, were Jimmie and Chad," Vickers said, referring to Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief. But Vickers said he and Johnson later talked at length about the incident, and put it behind them.

Vickers, a Thomasville, N.C., native, had his first full season with Hendrick in 2004. But without a victory, he often lived in the shadow of other top Hendrick stars such as Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

Vickers also struggled with the loss of Ricky Hendrick, who'd helped Vickers reach the Cup level in NASCAR. Ricky, son of team owner Rick Hendrick, and nine others were killed in a plane crash on Vickers' 21st birthday in 2004.

"I can't give you a reason why" the car didn't win until the Talladega race, said Vickers, who finished 15th in points last year. "If I knew, I would have fixed it. I did my best."

The Talladega race "will always be bittersweet," Vickers said.

But at least Johnson went on to win the Nextel Cup a month later, which helped ease any hard feelings between them about the Talladega tangle.

Said Vickers with a smile: "It definitely helped."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Life of Brian

Brian Vickers' career NASCAR statistics:

*--* Year/ Races Wins Poles Top 5 Top 10 DNF Avg. Avg. Winnings Finish Start 2003 5 0 0 0 0 1 29.4 6.2 $263,484 2004 36 0 2 0 4 6 22.1 16.1 $3,044,898 2005 36 0 1 5 10 4 19.7 16.5 $3,982,133 2006 36 1 1 5 9 2 19.2 16.8 $3,917,676 2007 0 0 0 0 0 0 -- -- $66,758 Totals 113 1 4 10 23 13 18.1 11.1 $11,274,949

*--*

Source: NASCAR and brianvickers.com

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