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Part-Time Job Pays Off

Vickers Breaks Long Drought With Loudon Victory

Brian Vickers climbs out of car to cheering fans after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sunday, July 14, 2013, in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Brian Vickers climbs out of car to cheering fans after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sunday, July 14, 2013, in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Loudon — In recent seasons, strategy has been an ingredient even more important than speed in the recipe for success at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Sprint Cup Series races have been won by opting to change the proper number of tires, by correctly plotting the pit cycle, even by reading the radar to know what weather was coming.

And Brian Vickers partnered with crew chief Rodney Childers to make all the right calls yesterday. Their strategy was sound. But Ty Norris wanted to be clear about something afterward.

“The strategy put Brian and the (No.) 55 near the top, with a shot at it,” clarified the co-owner of that Toyota, “but we passed the guys. Brian passed the guys.”

And on this day — on a track notorious for the difficulty it presents when trying to pass — it was, indeed, the driver who made the difference. Vickers bullied past Kyle Busch to take second with about 20 laps to go, overtook Tony Stewart for the lead on lap 287, then held off both of them on a hard-charging restart to win the Camping World RV Sales 301 in a come-from-behind triumph that ran somewhat parallel to the personal tribulations he’s endured since last visiting Victory Lane in 2009.

“It was this car that gave me the opportunity,” Vickers said of his third career Cup win. “It was just unbelievably fast. We started with a good car; we made some adjustments. Not all of them worked like we wanted at the beginning of the race, and (Childers) made some great adjustments and some great pit strategy to the car to get us the transition we needed.”

Over the previous 38 months, Vickers had been forced to miss most of a season with blood clots in his legs and lungs, saw his Red Bull Racing team disbanded, and while he’s now running a partial schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, his job there is currently so impermanent that the hat he wore while celebrating yesterday bore not his name, but that of Mark Martin. (Martin drives the car in most other races.)

All that’s made for a long road to the winner’s circle — and, in fact, the final 319 miles were filled with obstacles, too. Vickers started yesterday 13th, but his crew initially made the wrong adjustments to a car that finished as the fastest in Saturday’s final practice, so he had fallen all the way back to 27th by lap 105. Part of that was because he left the pits with a wrench on his deck lid at lap 75, and the corresponding penalty put him a lap behind the leaders.

He was still a lap down as the race passed the halfway point, and he was mired in the mid-20s at lap 210 — but that’s when strategy presented an opportunity. Childers had called Vickers in to top off his gas tank on lap 211, so when most of the field ducked in for service eight ovals later, Vickers stayed on the track.

A few others did, too, including Stewart, who led laps 203-286, but whom Vickers was hunting all the while. Busch came between them for a stretch, but Vickers used his power to blow past the eventual runner-up under a green flag, then flexed the might of his Camry again a few laps later to steam past Stewart on the front stretch.

Within two laps he’d stretched his lead to about a second, and his advantage was a full 2.5 ticks with five laps to go, though the yellow flag wouldn’t let him pull away so easily. The event’s 12th caution not only marked NHMS’ most in nine years, but it forced Vickers to hold on through a green-white-checker shootout.

That got a bit dicey on the restart, when Busch went inside of Stewart and the leaders were three-wide through the first turn, but Vickers stayed strong on the high side and got his nose ahead by the exit of turn 2.

“I had not seen the top side of three wide come out of turn 2 ahead, ever, here,” Norris said, though Vickers had done just that. Though he didn’t have enough fuel to finish his celebratory burnout, Vickers had plenty to reach the finish line 0.582 seconds before anybody else.

The 11th different winner in NHMS’ last 11 Cup races ultimately won the first Loudon race run with NASCAR’s sixth-generation car. But with 100 laps to go, the top seven spots were being dominated by drivers who’ve historically had success here, having combined for 18 New Hampshire Sprint Cup wins and 27 NHMS wins overall.

That included four-time Loudon winner Jeff Burton, who finished third, as well as three-time winners Stewart and Kurt Busch, though both of them ultimately left with sour results.

Attempting to run the final 99 laps on a single tank of fuel, Stewart ran out of gas after the final restart and settled for 26th. The elder Busch led 102 laps, but crashed on lap 225, and wound up 31st. As a result, Stewart fell from 10th to 13th in points, while Kurt Busch slid from ninth to 14th.

Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski (fourth) and Kasey Kahne (11th) climbed into those vacated Chase positions within the top 10, while Jimmie Johnson maintained his race lead by finishing sixth despite being forced to start at the rear of the field after failing post-qualifying inspection on Friday. Neither Clint Bowyer (13th) nor Carl Edwards (eighth) was a factor, but each was good enough to remain second and third in the standings, respectively.

As a part-time pilot, yesterday’s winner isn’t even eligible for the driver’s championship, though by virtue of his victory he improved Michael Waltrip Racing’s chances of contending for the owner’s crown. He also improved his own chances of sitting at the wheel of the 55 full-time next season. Sponsors tend to like drivers who win.

And yesterday Vickers proved himself eminently capable of being one of those.

“I feel very at home here and comfortable and confident in our chances to be successful,” Vickers said, “so this is where I want to be.”