Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Vickers driving to rebuild reputation, racing career

MARTINSVILLE - He acted like a jerk here last year. That's really the most accurate way to put it.

Brian Vickers raced recklessly at Martinsville Speedway. Selfishly. He was like the guy who pulls into the "12 items or fewer" line at the grocery store with 66 bags of dog food and a plan to buy a load of lottery tickets, the guy who carries only a checkbook (and no pen) for payment.

The caution flag flew a season-high 18 times in last year's fall Martinsville race. Vickers helped trigger five of them. That included three in the opening 100 laps, when the Thomasville, N.C., native was at his maniacal best.

Vickers ticked off Matt Kenseth, who entered the day as a title contender and left as an also-ran.

He angered Jamie McMurray by putting him into the wall.

He rankled Jimmie Johnson, who looked like he would cruise to victory until a late Vickers spat brought out the caution, tightened the field and created an opening for eventual winner Tony Stewart.

Vickers left the track that day without comment - the people he ruffled had plenty - and he didn't have much more to say about the incidents Friday.

"I wish it hadn't happened," Vickers said. "But that's the end of it."

That was the theme from all involved Friday: Those kinds of days happen to everyone. It's over. Last year was last year.

But as he returns to the scene of the carnage for Sunday's Goody's Fast Relief 500, Vickers is out to prove that last year wasn't his last year as a full-timer in the Sprint Cup Series.

Vickers, who lost his job at the end of last season when Red Bull Racing left NASCAR, has eight shots to prove his worth this year as he runs a partial Cup schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing. Two of those chances will be at Martinsville - a place where the 28-year-old has only two top-10 finishes in 13 career starts.

The pressure is high. Two years after missing most of the season with a blood clot issue, Vickers is seeking validation on multiple levels to position himself for a full-season ride in 2013.

"It's part of any pro sport: What have you done for me lately?" Vickers said. "What are your results lately? ... Obviously, when you only have eight shots at it, you'd better make them count."

He made the first one count. Vickers' season debut at Bristol two weeks ago couldn't have gone much better.

He led 125 laps and scored a top-five finish - something he did only three times in 36 starts last season.

"It was great to have those phone calls and text messages again that you get after a great run," Vickers said. "Some of the tough times over the last couple of years - from health things to work things - made Bristol mean just that much more to me personally."

It meant something to Waltrip, too. Enough that the team owner added two road course races to Vickers' schedule; he'd originally planned for Vickers to run just a half-dozen events this year.

"Eight races - if I do the math properly, we're up to a quarter of the season," Waltrip said.

Waltrip then turned to his driver, who was sitting next to him in the interview room.

"Keep chipping away. Keep going, young man, and who knows?" Waltrip said. "You might have them all one day."

That's the goal, of course. Vickers knows what it's like to experience success over a full season. In 2009, he won six poles, logged 13 top-10 finishes and finished 12th in the points standings, reeling in more than $5 million in earnings.

But those triumphs seemed a long way off the following year, when health issues hospitalized him in May, ending his season and leaving him wondering if he'd be viewed as "damaged goods" in the industry.

"He's been through a rough few years," Johnson said. "Hopefully, things get stable for him on the racing side of things."

The first step was Bristol. Vickers hopes to take another one Sunday at Martinsville, where acting like a jerk is not in his plans.

"For me," he said, "it was a lesson learned."

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