NASCAR’s Brian Vickers making most of substitute role

Brian Vickers will drive Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway and again in two weeks at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
Brian Vickers will drive Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway and again in two weeks at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. AP

Brian Vickers’ journey back to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series won’t be fully completed until he finds a fulltime ride.

But Vickers, who has had to take time off four times since 2010 to deal with medical issues, is grateful that he continues to be called on by Stewart-Haas Racing to drive Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy while Stewart continues to recover from a broken back.

“As much as I want to race this car as long as I can, I really want to see Tony back in it,” Vickers said Friday at Auto Club Speedway, where he will race in Sunday’s Auto Club 400. “I have been in his shoes. I know exactly what it’s like.”

Indeed, Vickers does. Diagnosed with blood clots and a hole in his heart in 2010, Vickers has been in and out of racing for the past seven seasons.

Vickers said the blood clots have always been under control, thanks to blood-thinning medication and constant scrutiny from doctors.

“I didn’t feel at all that my life was in danger,” Vickers said. “But I wasn’t so sure about my racing career.”

Slated to drive for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2015, Vickers missed that season’s first two races while recovering from heart surgery to repair a patch that had been inserted in his heart. After running in Las Vegas and Phoenix, the blood clots returned before the race at Fontana. He missed the rest of the year.

Vickers has found a temporary home at SHR, for at least as long as Stewart’s indefinite time away lasts. He is splitting time in Stewart’s car with Ty Dillon, finishing 26th in the season-opening Daytona 500 and 36th at Las Vegas. After Sunday’s race, he is also scheduled to drive for Stewart (who will retire as a Cup driver after this season) at Martinsville in two weeks. SHR has made no announcements beyond Martinsville of who will drive for Stewart, or how long he will be out. Stewart, who has traveled to the past three races, is undergoing an accelerated physical therapy regimen that it is hoped will hasten his return.

“I’m really thinking long term; I just want to get through tomorrow,” Vickers, 33, said with a laugh. “I am loving the weekend-off, weekend-on thing. That has been very relaxing, very fun. I get to race, but I also get some time off. (I’m) really pumped about (Martinsville) to kind of continue that forward. Then we are figuring out everything from there.

“Nothing has really changed. Everyone is really just kind of waiting to see how Tony shakes out. It’s his last season; he deserves to be in this car as much as he can be. I’m happy to turn the keys back over as soon as he’s ready.”

Vickers, who is from Thomasville and has three career Cup victories, said he wants to keep racing after Stewart returns, wherever that may take him.

“I am open to racing everything that has a seat, four wheels and a steering wheel, if the opportunity presents itself,” he said. “I would absolutely go back to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. I would absolutely go back to the BC Series. I would be open to racing anything.”

Vickers spoke Friday to help promote Saturday’s Xfinity race at Auto Club, the 300. A wider audience has recently seen Vickers in television commercials for a blood-clot medication that features him playing golf with Arnold Palmer, NBA player Chris Bosh and comedian Kevin Nealon.

Vickers, whose car is sponsored this week by Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation, said Palmer, 86, showed the younger guys a thing or two on the golf course, especially around the putting green.

“Although he hasn’t been playing 18 holes lately, he can still putt,” Vickers said. “We had some putting and chipping competitions and he just crushed all of us. We tried and tried and tried and then he steps up and … he made like six out of seven. It just kept going in. Not a single other person could make this putt. It was like a 30-foot putt. That is when we realized – he’s still got it.”

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