Brian Vickers will race full time in the Sprint Cup Series again, and he'll be one of the rare drivers in NASCAR's premier series with a full-time sponsor.
After two partial seasons in the No. 55 Toyota, Vickers will return to a full 36-race slate in the ride, which also will be fully sponsored by Aaron's. The leasing and sales retailer, which has partnered with Michael Waltrip Racing for the past 14 years, will be increasing its commitment from 30 races this season.
Aaron's CEO Ron Allen said the company agreed to a two-year deal through the 2015 season because team owner Michael Waltrip believes Vickers will be a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship contender.
"Michael and his team have been talking about really going for the Chase," Allen told USA TODAY Sports. "We agreed that could be an important opportunity for really both sponsor and team having Brian come in for 36 races starting next year. This really solidifies our relationship because it's certainly more recognition for our brand if we can get in the Chase. This gives us a better chance by sponsoring a full 36 races."
BY THE NUMBERS: Vickers career statistics
As the cost of sponsoring a Cup car has risen, there's been a shrinking number of companies sponsoring a full season (such as NAPA, FedEx, Target and Lowe's).
Aaron's re-examined its NASCAR sponsorship while overhauling its executive team over the past 18 months, and vice president of marketing Andrea Freeman said the research justified its investment.
"We love being at NASCAR events," she said. "We think it's a very loyal fan base. It's a great opportunity to build our brand. We feel we're one of the top recognized brands within the sport."
Said Allen: "We're constantly evaluating our marketing dollar spend, and we feel this certainly continues to make a lot of sense for us. This is really a sport that's put Aaron's on the map nationwide, and we're proud of that fact. We think by going to the full 36 races, it gives us that much more clout."
Vickers' comeback story also helped sell Aaron's on the deal. He missed the final 25 races of the 2010 season while recovering from blood clots and heart surgery and then lost his ride in 2011 after Red Bull Racing closed. He latched onto a job with MWR last year, splitting the No. 55 Camry with Mark Martin. He also filled in for three races for Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 for Joe Gibbs Racing as Hamlin recovered from a broken back earlier this year.
Vickers punctuated his return by ending a 75-race winless streak with a victory July 14 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway
"The victory in New Hampshire certainly helped," said Aaron's director of sports marketing Rich Lamprey, who declined to specify whether Aaron's would be increasing its financial commitment to NASCAR. "Brian was a true competitor there. He really got up on the wheel and drove his heart out. It proved something to us, and that was a big moment."
Vickers, who made the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2009, rallied from falling a lap down to earn his third career victory.
"Winning never hurts, that always helps get things across the line, but this ball has been in motion long before that took place," Vickers told USA TODAY Sports. "One question Aaron's had is, 'Can you guys win?' Our answer was, 'Yes, we believe we can,' but obviously when you do it, that answers the question best.
"To know they're going to come in at a greater capacity than they ever have, it shows confidence not just in myself but in MWR. We're all very proud of that. It also shows the success they see in the sport."
Asked if he helped make the deal happen by making concessions on salary in comparison to the last full-time deal he signed in 2009, Vickers said, "I don't do math in public. But the sport's most certainly gone through changes, and there's ebbs and flows in the general economy, and those trickle down to our sport. I'd tell you we all went in as a group effort. What do we do to get the deal done to win races? Our goal was to put together a team to win and allocate resources to maximize performance on Sunday."
Martin, 54, is scheduled to drive 11 of the final 14 races this season. He said before the season he didn't plan to return to the No. 55 in 2014 and hasn't announced any plans. Allen said any decision on whether Vickers might drive more races in place of Martin would be up to the team.
Because of Vickers' New Hampshire win, there is an outside chance the No. 55 could qualify as a wild card for the Chase for the Sprint Cup owners championship and compete for a title over the final 10 races.
"It's been an honor to work with Mark, and I look forward to continuing to do that," Vickers said. "I consider him a mentor. I'm in no rush. If they want me to run more races, of course I would. But my intention is to win an owners championship with Mark."