Bristol Showcases Second-Chance Stories
Everyone deserves another chance at some point, even a NASCAR driver who has wrecked everyone in his way, or let his temper derail his career, or lost both his confidence and competitive edge.
Elliott Sadler got another chance, from Kevin and DeLana Harvick, who gave him a job last season when nobody else was interested in a journeyman driver running at the back of the pack.
The Harvicks believed Sadler still had something in his tank, and took a gamble on him with one of their stout Nationwide Series cars. For the first time in years, Sadler had competitive equipment and a chance to run up front and race for the championship.
OK, so he went winless and fell short in the title race. But he showed enough that Richard Childress kept him this season after buying out the Harvicks' Nationwide program.
On Saturday, Sadler went to Victory Lane for the second time in three races. A 36-year-old father of two in his 15th season in NASCAR, Sadler is now the Nationwide Series points leader.
Before this month, it had been 14 years since Sadler last won in the Nationwide Series. His last Sprint Cup Series win was in 2004. His parents, who were present Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway, had never before been on site for one of his NASCAR victories.
"When you have an owner, Richard, who when he talks to you, believes in you as a person, believes in you as a driver, it makes all the difference in the world," Sadler said. "For my self-confidence and what I can do as a driver, when you have people around you that believe in your talent, or believe in what you can do in a race car, it makes you feel like a different person.
"Compared to what I was going through three or four years ago to now, I am a totally different person mentally and physically, especially in the race car."
Ironically, its Sadler's resurgence that created an opportunity for Brian Vickers.
Michael Waltrip Racing announced on March 3 that Sadler would run six of the Cup races Mark Martin doesn't have on his schedule, but the deal blew up hours later after Sadler won the Nationwide race at Phoenix. That victory, his first in the series since 1998, apparently made RCR and Chevrolet balk at the idea of Sadler driving a Toyota for another team.
So MWR turned to Vickers, who has been unable to find a ride since Red Bull Racing closed at the end of last season.
Vickers' predicament is a combination of both a down economy and his own actions coming back to bite him. He closed last year with a horrendous final month on the track, starting at Martinsville, where he was involved in five cautions and initially accepted no responsibility for any of the accidents.
The final caution was a deliberate wrecking of Matt Kenseth, who was second in the championship standings at the time, and it brought out a yellow that affected the final outcome of the race. Two weeks later, he wrecked Kenseth again at Phoenix.
In a strong economy, maybe those skirmishes wouldn't have mattered. But the bad press could not have been ignored by sponsors considering working with Vickers. Plus, he had spent five years living a "Red Bull lifestyle" that doesn't fit with everyone's marketing model.
Back at the track last weekend for his first race of the season, the Vickers who met with the media Friday morning was a humbled man. He distanced himself from a notorious 2011 profile in Maxim magazine - it depicted Vickers as a hard-partying playboy with a tremendous ego - and emphasized his focus was on a strong run at Bristol and getting back into a full-time ride.
Bristol is not the ideal place to emerge from a nearly four-month layoff, and Vickers has never been very good at the Tennessee track. He'd led only one lap in 14 previous starts at Bristol, and had finished on the lead lap only four times.
Yet there he was out front on Sunday with a new car and a new team. He led a career-high 125 laps and finished fifth, his first top-five at Bristol. Say what you want about improved equipment and attitudes at Michael Waltrip Racing, but Vickers deserves a huge pat on the back for his performance.
"When it's your only (race), you have to make it count," said Vickers, who quickly deferred all credit to MWR. He's got five more races lined up with MWR this season, but showed Sunday he should be in a full-time Cup ride.
And then there's Kurt Busch, who got another chance when Phoenix Racing partnered with him when he was absolutely untouchable.
Too many public meltdowns led to him parting ways with Penske Racing in December, and landing a quality ride was just not going to happen. In some respects, Busch was lucky to get any ride at all, and has James Finch to thank for giving him a chance.
But a month into the season, it's very clear that the driver ability far outclasses the team capabilities. A rash of bad luck has nearly derailed the effort, and it was no different Sunday, when Busch turned lap-after-lap in the middle of the pack trying hard not to be lapped.
A flat tire - Busch really hasn't caught a single break through the first month of the season - was yet another setback, but Busch hung with it and eked out an 18th-place finish.
"That was a good run for us," the five-time Bristol winner said.
Seriously? Does Busch want us to believe he's content with an 18th-place finish?
Alas, these are the cards he's been dealt, and he's got no one to blame but himself for his current position. But with every flat tire, bad pit stop and fluke accident, one begins to wonder if Busch hasn't been punished enough. He's too good a wheelman to be sentenced to a lifetime of irrelevance, or, even worse for him, mediocrity.
For now, with thicker skin and a deep sigh, Busch keeps plugging along.
"It's just, there's only 24 hours in the day, and there's only six days between each race day," he said Friday at Bristol. "We have to go through some of these growing pains, we have to mesh together, and I hope we are able to do it sooner rather than later."