Brian Vickers: Scene of His Crime?
Brian Vickers is back at the scene where his perceived crime, or string of crimes, began.
And this time, Vickers hopes his Sunday drive in the Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway is less eventful than his last visit to the short track, when he was involved in several incidents that brought out caution flags. The most notable occurred when Matt Kenseth spun Vickers after growing impatient with trying to pass him, and then Vickers spun himself out later in an obvious attempt at retaliation toward Kenseth.
Two races later in Phoenix, Vickers succeeded in wrecking Kenseth, a championship contender at the time. And a storm of criticism that began building toward Vickers after the race at Martinsville came to a head. Many felt it contributed to Vickers' struggles to find a Sprint Cup ride this season.
But that was then and this is now. Or at least that was the basic theme Vickers espoused Friday in his return to the .526-mile short track.
"At the end of the day, Matt wrecked me and I know he regrets it. I wrecked him back, and I wished it hadn't happened. But that's the end of it," said Vickers, fresh off a strong fifth-place run at Bristol on March 18 in his first Sprint Cup race of the season.
Kenseth may not have seen it exactly the same way, but basically had the same response Friday when asked if his past dispute with Vickers might carry over to this Sunday.
"It's certainly all in the past, water under the bridge," Kenseth said. "If either one of us is caught up thinking about that, then you're not giving your full attention to giving your team the best chance for the best finish you can get in this race -- and that's not good. I'm sure he's excited to be back in the car and he had a great run at Bristol. I think we're both looking forward to racing Sunday and putting what happened here last year out of everyone's minds going forward."
Vickers much rather would talk about his immediate future, which became a little brighter Friday with the announcement that he has been signed to drive two more Cup races for Michael Waltrip Racing this season. The Bristol race was the first of six he already had agreed to run for MWR in the No. 55 car that also is being driven this year by veteran Mark Martin and Waltrip himself.
In addition to driving both Bristol races, both Martinsville races and both New Hampshire races, Vickers now also will drive the car on June 24 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., and on Aug. 12 at Watkins Glen. Martin had been scheduled to run those events, but told Waltrip he no longer wanted to.
"Me being the owner that I am, I quickly decided that we would have to get someone else to do it," Waltrip joked.
In all seriousness, both Waltrip and Vickers heaped praise on Martin for helping build the No. 55 team into a competitive one very quickly. Martin is in his first season with MWR after driving for Hendrick Motorsports the previous three.
"Mark Martin has built so much momentum around the 55 car," Waltrip said. "And I said to Brian when he showed up at Bristol, 'Let's just keep that momentum going. You do the same things with this group of guys that Mark has done, and you're going to win races.' This team is so high on confidence right now and really believes in what they're doing because he's just built them up.
"So then Brian shows up and the same thing happens. He continues it. So it was pretty much a no-brainer to put him in the car for those other two races. It was a perfect match, but Mark deserves a lot of the credit for that team."
"Not only has Mark done everything that Michael has said, but he contributes all those resources even when he's not at the track," Vickers said. "At Bristol, I talked to Mark almost every day. And he talked to the crew.
"Mark has really shown me a lot and I've already learned a lot. So this is not just an opportunity for me to be in a race car; it's actually an opportunity for me to learn from one of the best in the industry -- and how he's not just a race-car driver, but also the leader of the team. And not just when he's here, but even when he's not here."
Now Martin will be at two fewer races this season and Vickers will be at two more. After being one of the odd men out of the Sprint Cup garage last season when Red Bull Racing closed its doors and after missing 25 of 36 races during the 2010 season as he battled a series of blood clots, Vickers said he appreciates the opportunity more than most can realize.
A two-time Cup race winner who made the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup while with Red Bull, he's also anxious to build on his run at Bristol and make folks forget about what transpired on the track at the end of last season, beginning with his last trip to Martinsville.
"I think as an athlete and a competitor in the sport that we live in, you need validation every week," Vickers said. "I think the industry has proven that. You can fade away quickly.
"In that sense, I've definitely made some mistakes over the last 10 years of my NASCAR career -- but I've had some really good moments that I'm very proud of and Bristol is one of them. It meant a lot to get back in the car and do well."
Vickers admitted that the fallout from his dispute with Kenseth last season surprised him.
"I didn't make the best decisions of my career," Vickers said. "But at the end of the day, Matt wrecked me going into [Turn] 3 and I wrecked him back. It's happened a lot throughout the history of NASCAR and big-time auto racing. ... I'm not trying to defend my actions. But when you really boil it down, that's what it was: Matt wrecked me and I wrecked him back. And it spiraled from there.
"For me it was a lesson learned. My goal this year is for that to go away and become a non-issue. That's what Bristol was for me. My goal this weekend is to make it disappear again, so that when we're back here for the next race, we'll be talking about the great run I had at Martinsville and everyone forgets completely about the other one."
Waltrip is trying to help in more ways than one. He said he's talked to both parties involved.
"I'm friends with Brian and I'm friends with Matt," Waltrip said. "I talked to Matt and Matt said it's over, it's racing, that he hated that it happened but that it doesn't have anything to do with next time I see him. I asked Brian to maybe be just a little nicer to Matt next time he sees him, and for Matt to be nicer to Brian."