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Drew Bonifant: Survival of the fittest for Vickers at Camping World RV Sales 301

  • A fan raises his arms as Tony Stewart took a strong lead in the second half of the the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2013 in Loudon. Stewart maintained his lead until the end when he lost to Brian Vickers. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    A fan raises his arms as Tony Stewart took a strong lead in the second half of the the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2013 in Loudon. Stewart maintained his lead until the end when he lost to Brian Vickers.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Brian Vickers poses with a Makris lobster in Victory Lane as is the tradition at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway during the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at  on July 14, 2013 in Loudon. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Brian Vickers poses with a Makris lobster in Victory Lane as is the tradition at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway during the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at on July 14, 2013 in Loudon.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Carrie Cornelissen, of Meredith covers her eight-month-old son Liam's ears while Joey Logano's car crashes in the background at the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2013 in Loudon. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Carrie Cornelissen, of Meredith covers her eight-month-old son Liam's ears while Joey Logano's car crashes in the background at the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2013 in Loudon.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Brian Vickers's pit crew celebrates the driver's victory at the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2013 in Loudon. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Brian Vickers's pit crew celebrates the driver's victory at the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2013 in Loudon.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Carrie Cornelissen, of Meredith, covers her eight-month-old son Liam's ears while Joey Logano's car crashes in the background at the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2013 in Loudon. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Carrie Cornelissen, of Meredith, covers her eight-month-old son Liam's ears while Joey Logano's car crashes in the background at the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2013 in Loudon.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • A fan raises his arms as Tony Stewart took a strong lead in the second half of the the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2013 in Loudon. Stewart maintained his lead until the end when he lost to Brian Vickers. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Brian Vickers poses with a Makris lobster in Victory Lane as is the tradition at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway during the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at  on July 14, 2013 in Loudon. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Carrie Cornelissen, of Meredith covers her eight-month-old son Liam's ears while Joey Logano's car crashes in the background at the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2013 in Loudon. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Brian Vickers's pit crew celebrates the driver's victory at the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2013 in Loudon. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Carrie Cornelissen, of Meredith, covers her eight-month-old son Liam's ears while Joey Logano's car crashes in the background at the Sprint Cup series Camping World RV Sales 301 race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2013 in Loudon. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

To better understand Brian Vickers’s elation yesterday, you have to start with his despair that began in 2010.

It was that May that the driver, then with Red Bull Racing, was waking up at night with agonizing pain in his chest caused by blood clots that settled in his lungs. It was the start of a demoralizing stretch of bad luck, one in which Vickers saw parts of his life and career unravel one by one. He was sick, hurting and done racing for the season. His team collapsed soon after. His full-time Sprint Cup position went with it.

The happy ending is still in progress, but the newest chapter was written yesterday, when Vickers won the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, surviving a battle with Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and his own fuel tank to earn his first victory since 2009.

“Everything, from the blood clots, you wake up one morning and you’re just hoping to be around the next, to ‘are you ever going to race again’ to ‘now I don’t have a job,’ ” he said. “All of that, coming here and sitting in Victory Lane makes it one of the more special events of my life.”

Survival’s been the moral of Vickers’s story. While several of his competitors from yesterday’s race have taken checkered flag after checkered flag, racked up money and points and never had to worry about job security, Vickers, the 2003 Busch Series (now Nationwide Series) champion, never had such luxuries.

His health betrayed him. For several nights that May, he suffered the anguish that clots can cause, which he equated then to feeling like blows to the chest from a sledge hammer. He eventually went to the emergency room, and was soon dealt news that his 2010 season was finished.

He returned the next year, but the bad breaks continued. Red Bull shut down its Cup team for 2012, leaving Vickers, a budding talent, searching for full-time Cup rides. There were no suitors, so Vickers listened when Michael Waltrip Racing Executive Vice President Ty Norris offered a part-time job driving the No. 55 car. He ran well, landing three top-fives and five top-10s and doing enough to keep that gig heading into this season.

“When everything is going your way and when you’re in Victory Lane, everyone is your friend,” said Vickers, who isn’t even eligible for the Sprint Cup standings due to his full-time status as a Nationwide driver. “But when your back is against the wall and everything is down and things are not looking so good, you find out quickly who is willing to vouch for you or not. . . . I learned a lot through that experience.”

Still, that trip to Victory Lane eluded him. Until yesterday.

Originally a lap down, Vickers made a charge, making it up on the 157th go-round and breaking into the top 10 with a risky decision. The leaders pitted for fuel at lap 221, but Vickers was among a group of drivers who stayed out, wagering that he’d have just enough fuel to last the remaining 80 laps.

“(With) the Toyota horsepower and having great fuel mileage all weekend, we knew this morning, if it came down to a fuel mileage race, we were going to be in good shape,” he said.

While the clock ticked, Vickers rose. He passed Busch for second on lap 283, then raced past Stewart to start lap 288. Plenty of time for disaster remained, but while Stewart, another one of the lap-221 gamblers, ran out of gas just before the finish, Vickers shot across the granite stripe for the win in his aptly-named Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota.

Finally, luck was smiling on a driver who, for the past few years, hasn’t had a lot of it.

“It certainly adds a lot to it,” Vickers said when asked whether the victory was necessary to cap his comeback. “Coming back, there are multiple goals. . . . One goal was to get out of the hospital. Goal two was to get back in a race car, and three was to win a race. But ultimately, the decision to come back to racing was to win a championship.”

That will require a return to full-time racing, and it took only moments after the race for the sentiment to set in that that goal can be checked off as well.

“I think it’s a done deal,” his crew chief, Rodney Childers, said.

Vickers doesn’t feel that same certainty. It’s hard to when you’ve seen your once-promising career take a wrong turn toward hospital beds and unemployment.

“Nothing is a guarantee in life,” he said. “I’ve learned that the hard way.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or
abonifant@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @dbonifant.)

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