Brian Vickers, driver of the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, has been through a lot the last few years, both professionally and personally. He missed a big chunk of the 2010 race season because of a blood clotting issue. He wound up sidelined for six months by blood thinners. Vickers eventually returned to racing, only to find himself without a Sprint Cup Series ride. He returned to the Nationwide Series, courtesy of a job offer from Joe Gibbs Racing. Vickers did get a part-time Sprint Cup gig from Michael Waltrip Racing for 2012 and 2013 that paired him with veteran Mark Martin as drivers of the No. 55.
Vickers got the break he was looking for in 2013 when MWR named him as the full-time driver of the No. 55 for 2014, and he was set to finish out 2013 in the car when Martin headed over to Stewart-Haas Racing to sub for the injured Tony Stewart. It wasn’t to be, though, as Vickers’ clotting problem resurfaced and he went back on blood thinners. Vickers missed the end of the 2013 season, but he’s back now and ready to take on the Sprint Cup Series full-time in 2014. During the Sprint Media Tour in Charlotte in late January, Vickers looked ahead to his 2014 season, as well as talked about his time back in the Nationwide Series and his health issues. Here’s what he had to say:
How are you feeling and what is your medical outlook heading into the season?
“Essentially the plan always was to come off blood thinners this week. I met with my doctors this past week to confirm all that. Everything looked fantastic from their perspective and I’m off blood thinners and they said, ‘You can go racing.’ I’ve still got to get — I did my standard NASCAR physical yesterday, so I still have to get all the paperwork in and get all that done, but from a medical standpoint, the doctors say I’m good to go.”
How do you manage your health situation moving forward?
“I think it’s part of the reason I’ve partnered with Janssen and some other folks, clotconnect.org, to raise awareness on clotting. Just to be mindful of what the signs and symptoms are. That’s really all you can do. When you’re taking long flights, you stand up and you walk around. That’s not just for me, everyone should do that. When I’m in the race car, there’s really not a lot to do. Obviously keep an eye out for signs and symptoms, but my last incident was a provoked incident. I had to wear an ankle brace for a month, which is known to can create clots. In those situations, will be more mindful and probably more careful and maybe try to get ahead of it, other than that I just live my life and go racing.”
What do you think of the new qualifying format?
“I’m good with it. I don’t know that a lot is going to change. I think it’s going to create a little bit more excitement, for sure. It’s kind of that knockout style qualifying, but it’s not like we’re going to go out there and run six laps. You’re still going to go out there and you’re going to tape up and you’re going to go as hard and fast as you can for a lap. I think it’s going to be very similar for us, but I think it’s going to create more excitement for the fans. That’s a win-win in my book.”
Are you excited to be focused back on the Cup Series racing?
“Absolutely, I’ve missed being in a race car for the past three months, for sure. At least it wasn’t as bad as last time and it was six months. I’ve also enjoyed having some time off. It’s been fantastic being able to spend some time with my wife and going on a honeymoon in January, which was great, which we didn’t think we would ever get to do. Being married between two races and then obviously all the season testing. With all the rule changes, there’s been a lot of testing by all the teams in NASCAR trying to prepare the cars for what they want to do. A lot of Goodyear tests as well. The clots presented a big problem, but also a little bit of an opportunity to take some time off, which was nice. I’m ready to go. This week, I’m like, ‘Okay, it’s time to go.’”
Where did you go for your honeymoon?
“We did an around the world trip and were in southeast Asia quite a bit — Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Hong Kong and then a stop in Austria and then home.”
What will Jeff Burton bring to the Michael Waltrip Racing organization?
“It’s fantastic having Jeff (Burton) involved and what he can bring to this team. His level of experience obviously, what he’s been able to accomplish in his career, the insight from all the teams that he’s worked with over the years. I think just having him on board, especially for me this past off-season, just being able to have two drivers in cars testing when I wasn’t able to be in a car has been huge. We couldn’t ask for a better guy to be in that role, in my opinion.”
What is your team’s goal for the 2014 season?
“We want to win races and win a championship. Really, not to make it sound too simple, because it’s certainly not simple. We want to go out and try to win multiple races, we want to try to sit on poles and we want to try to win a championship and I think the 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine team can do that. I think we have a great group of guys. Most of it is the same group of guys. Billy (Scott, crew chief) is going to be leading the team, which I’m really excited about. He’s been the engineer on that team now for some time and I think he’s ready to step up to that role and be the leader and we can go out there and do it.”
Do you have any rust you need to dust off to get out on the race track and be competitive again?
“We have some testing coming up next week, so we’re going to have some testing before Daytona to knock the rust off, so to speak. I think it’s hard to argue that you’re going to be quite as sharp after being out for three months as you would if you’ve been testing for three months. But, I think when you’ve been doing something for 20-plus years in total, as far as racing and for 12 years, or going on 13 years in NASCAR, between the (Nationwide) Series and the Cup Series, you don’t forget things either. It’s kind of like getting on a bike. If you haven’t rode a bike for a few months, it’s not like you forget how to ride it when you get on. There’s a balance in there somewhere, we definitely want to get as much testing in as we can and we’re going to have a lot of seat time in Daytona before the Daytona 500. It matters — we’re going to knock as much rust off as we can. I’ve been through this once before. I went through it the first time, I was out of the car for over six months and when I got back in it just felt right at home. We went to — I think my first test was at Disney and the first lap felt kind of awkward, the second lap was like ‘Oh, this is normal,’ the third lap and the fourth lap was right at speed.”
What have the last few seasons been like for you?
“I’ve enjoyed the last couple years from the standpoint of being able to race the 24 Hours of Le Mans, being able to race in Europe and travel and being able to partner with Mark Martin and learn so much from him. But, I’m also excited to be in a stable situation. Really looking forward to having phenomenal partners like Aaron’s and Toyota and so many of our other partners fully supporting our effort, being in the car week in and week out, focusing on a championship again are all things I’m looking forward to. It’s been a long time. The break has been nice, but I’m ready to go back and race for a championship.”
How have you been able to get over the setbacks you’ve had both in your career and your health?
“I think it’s the support of family and friends to a large part. Some of it is the way I was raised, never give up. It’s the support that my family and my friends have provided and my team, MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing) and Aaron’s and Toyota have given me the commitment that has helped the whole way through — knowing that someone still stands behind you.”
What does it mean to return to Cup racing at Daytona?
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Daytona (in NSCS) — I guess it’s been since 2011. To get back down there is going to be special. That race track has always been special to all race car drivers. The first time you go there it is amazing. I’m curious to see if it feels the same this year — that excitement and energy and that love as it did the first time I went to Daytona. You’ll have to ask me when I get there. I have a feeling it will. I think being gone for so long and going through so much since the last time I was there, it’s going to have a similar kind of feel to it for me and that’s a great feeling.”
– photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR