Move up in the points or wait until next year. That’s the simple equation Red Bull driver Brian Vickers faces in the next five NASCAR Sprint Cup races.
The good news is that momentum seems to be on his side and a recent surge has Vickers within striking distance of the championship party. Vickers moved 93 points closer to the top-12 and gained three positions in the standings in the past four races. He’s now tantalisingly close to a spot in the Chase for the Cup and a run at the NASCAR championship.
“This Red Bull team continues to come on strong,” said Vickers, who is a manageable 104 points behind 12th-placed Greg Biffle. “I’m so proud of the effort everyone is putting into trying to make the Chase. If we keep doing what we have been doing the past month, we will continue to make up ground on the leaders each week.”
NASCAR’s top tier Sprint Cup championship format sees the first 26 races determine the 12 drivers who battle for the title in the 10-race Chase for the Cup. The Chase starts Sept. 20 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Vickers’ charge began with a seventh at the Daytona International Speedway a month ago. The result helped Vickers bounce back from a crash and a 35th-place finish in a rain shortened race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. A week after Daytona, he took another seventh in Chicago and then a fifth in the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The hot streak continued for the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota driver earlier this week in Pocono with his fourth consecutive top-10 finish, a sixth in the rain-delayed Pennsylvania 500 on Monday.
But the good results continued in Pocono only after some spirited driving by Vickers in the final 35 laps, where he moved up from the mid-field and then out-duelled a determined Mark Martin for sixth at the wire.
“The Chase has always been the goal, and the whole Red Bull team has worked hard to achieve that,” Vickers said. “The cars have been great. We just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing and maybe catch a break along the way.”
The bad news is that Vickers was in a similar situation last year and then the wheels fell off.
As the 2008 “Race to the Chase” got serious, Vickers found himself going backwards at the worst possible time, and dropped out of contention in the final 10 stops before the Chase began. Going into the 20th race at Indianapolis last season, Vickers was only 95 points out of the top-12.
Two races later, his 42nd- and 28th-place finishes at Indianapolis and Pocono put his championship hopes in the pits, 203 points adrift of the final Chase spot. He never recovered.
This year, Vickers arrived in New York for Sunday’s Heluva Good! at The Glen determined to make sure history doesn’t repeat. And with three finishes of 18th or better in five starts at the 2.45-mile, 12-turn Watkins Glen International circuit, including an eighth in 2005, Vickers hopes to keep his streak alive with another top-10 result.
“Watkins Glen is a great track — what I consider a proper road course,” Vickers said. “It is fast, has great passing zones, high-speed corners, great ‘S’ curves up the hill, and if you have a good car, you are able to pass.”
On Saturday, Vickers returns to Braun Racing’s No. 32 Toyota to drive in the Nationwide Series’ Zippo 200. It will be the second Nationwide appearance at The Glen for Vickers, who finished third there in 2005. So far this season, the 2003 Nationwide champion has four eight top-10 finishes in 10 starts.
While teammate Scott Speed’s road course experience is considerable compared to most NASCAR regulars, he doesn’t expect his time with Toro Rosso in F1 to be much help in the No. 82 Red Bull Toyota.
“I don’t feel like I have a huge advantage with my background, but I certainly am on the sharper end of that stick,” he said. “At this level, guys are good and they can certainly race these big heavy cars.”
'Every weekend is the same for me, just trying to go in there and learn as much as possible' - Scott Speed
Speed is 35th in the point standings as the series heads to the season’s second and final road race. But the more familiar confines of a road course may be just the spot for a former open wheel racer to look for his maiden NASCAR win, something former IndyCar and F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya did in 2007 at California’s Infineon Raceway.
On the other hand, Speed has never raced at Watkins Glen, so his main concern will be looking to keep his nose clean and take home more valuable points.
“It’s good that we have some momentum going,” said Speed, who took a solid 23rd last weekend in Pocono. “We’ve certainly turned a big corner. It’s all carrying forward. All the guys are really motivated. The team is in really good spirits. It’s great to see a lot of progression.
“Every weekend is the same for me, just trying to go in there and learn as much as possible from my team and the racing.”
He will also get some valuable track time in the Nationwide Series’ The Zippo 200, although the differences between the two cars probably won’t help him much on Sunday. Speed will drive the Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 99 Red Bull Toyota and try to build on his pole at Las Vegas and three top-10 finishes in seven Nationwide starts so far in 2009.
Speed won’t be the only road racing veteran in the field this weekend. NASCAR stops at non-ovals usually find some of the cars piloted by road course “ringers.” And some have had good success in their one-off drives. For example, Canadian Ron Fellows put on a Sprint Cup driving clinic at The Glen in 2004 after starting dead last due to a rained out qualifying. In the race, Fellows passed every driver but one — Tony Stewart — to take an incredible second from 43rd on the grid. Fellows, who has three Nationwide wins at the Glen, will also be a favourite in Saturday’s Zippo 200.
Road racing specialists Boris Said, Max Papis, and former Red Bull IRL driver Patrick Carpentier, who raced almost a full Sprint Cup season last year, will join the Sprint Cup field.
Last year’s Cup winner at the Glen, Kyle Busch, finds himself in a similar position to Vickers. He will also be looking for a top finish in New York after a disappointing 16th at Pocono dropped him 101 points out of a top-12 position. Unlike Vickers, Pocono marked Busch’s fourth consecutive race finish outside the top 10.
But Busch has been good at The Glen in NASCAR’s past three visits, taking a ninth, a seventh and the win last season the Cup race.
“We had a fast car last year and the race went green for the first 40 laps. The field got kind of spread out,” said Busch, who started from pole in 2008 after rain washed out qualifying.
“Luckily, we had the track position we did, but we were pretty quick and we could pass some guys. Hopefully, we have another car that turns pretty good and exits the corners pretty good so we can pass, if need be.”