I said as much in Sunday's post recap video: Brian Vickers win on Sunday was more than just a driver taking the checkered flag. It was a validation of his perseverance, not only at a professional level, but more so at a personal level.
Three years to the day before he qualified 13th for the Camping World RV Sales 301, Vickers was in the hospital. Not for a flu shot or a routine check up, but for heart surgery to repair a hole in his heart that was causing his blood to clot.
He returned to race in the Sprint Cup Series in 2011, but as bad luck would have it, Red Bull Racing folded at the end of his comeback season and he was left without a ride.
"Everything that I've gone through over the last several years," he said in the Media Center afterward. "From the blood clots, and you wake up one morning and you're just hoping to be around the next. To: are you ever going to race again? To: ok, I may race again. To: all right, I'm racing, now I don't have a job. To: getting a phone call from Ty [Norris, Exec. VP/GM of Michael Waltrip racing], asking if I wanted to run eight races, and I said, 'absolutely.'"
MWR gave him the part-time opportunity to pilot the No. 55 in 2012. He was very impressive in those eight races, finishing with three top-fives and a total of five top-10s. The team owner even indicated last year that it might only be a matter of time before Vickers got a full-time seat.
Alas, that didn't come to fruition this season. Vickers was again allotted a part-time position, splitting the seat with Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip, and raced full-time in the Nationwide Series.
He was great in the CNBC Prime's "The Profit" 200 on Saturday at NHMS in finishing second to Kyle Busch, but the Sprint Cup Series race looked like a different deal. Early in the race, Vickers was penalized when a wrench got stuck in his car on pit road, and he brought out a caution for debris in doing so. The penalty put him a lap down, where he was stuck in 24th as late as Lap 210.
"Michael Waltrip Racing and Brian Vickers, we were both at one point left for dead," said Ty Norris of MWR. "We were believed that we wouldn't continue, and his career was in a state of flux. Our race was very much like that today after the penalty, and we spent two-thirds of the race running in the teens to twenties."
Vickers luck finally changed with a series of caution flags that got him back on the lead lap and inside the top-10. He jumped inside the top-five by Lap 225 and set his sights on the front of the field.
With the laps winding down, he sped along in third. He was so quick that Kyle Busch, who's not one to give up a spot easily, let him blow on by as he set sail toward the race leader, Tony Stewart.
"Man, we had a fast race car," Vickers said. "It was just unbelievably fast. (Crew chief) Rodney (Childers) kept telling me at the end of the race, 'ok, you're good. Slow down!' And, I was saying, 'man, I'm slowing down. I'm rolling out early.' And it just kept going."
He passed Stewart on Lap 286 and never looked back. Not even a great-white-checkered finish could stop the No. 55 or Brian Vickers from his first Sprint Cup Series victory since 2009.
When he pulled around on the frontstretch to celebrate with fans, he was so unfamiliar with the victory celebration that after a brief attempt at a burnout, he stalled the car and was unable to refire. He wasn't sure if he was out of gas or not, so he just jumped out, got the checkered flag and emphatically walked along the track wall to high-five the line of fans.
The respect from the rest of the garage for what Vickers had overcome was apparent. Teammate Clint Bowyer ran to meet him on pit road, while Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears stopped in victory lane to give him a hug.
"We didn't have a chance," said second-place Kyle Busch of the final restart against the No. 55. "Congratulations to those guys. It's great to see the No. 55 in victory lane."
It's been a long journey through life for Vickers as he's recovered from a significant health issue and the folding of his race team. He reaffirmed on Sunday that his heart is as well as ever. And, I don't just mean from a health standpoint, but also from a competitive standpoint.
He never gave up hope that he would one day return to victory lane in the Sprint Cup Series, and he was rewarded in the Camping World RV Sales 301 with that sought-after win.