Brian Vickers cleared to return to NASCAR competition March 8

Brian Vickers will miss a couple of races this season but won’t miss out on the opportunity to win his first Sprint Cup Series championship.

Michael Waltrip Racing on Wednesday announced Vickers had been medically cleared to return to full-time NASCAR competition beginning with the March 8 Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Vickers, who had surgery seven weeks ago to repair a hole in his heart for the second time, will miss the season-opening Daytona 500 and the race the following week at Atlanta.

NASCAR, however, has approved a medical waiver so he can compete in the 2015 Chase despite missing the races so long as he meets all other eligibility requirements.

“The doctors gave me a clean bill of health and said I will be better than before,” Vickers said in a statement.

“The advancements in modern medicine and surgical procedures are amazing and I have to thank my doctors at the Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute and Carolinas Medical Center for their extraordinary care. I have literally put my life in their hands twice and I cannot begin to express my level of gratitude.”

Vickers, 31, was sidelined during 2010 and 2013 with blood clots and one surgery to correct a hole in his heart. His most recent health scare came as a result of his body rejecting the artificial patch inserted to fix the hole in his heart during the first surgery.

“Now all of my focus is getting ready so when I return we are prepared to win races and the championship,” he said.

MWR co-owner Michael Waltrip will drive Vickers’ No. 55 Toyota in the Feb. 22 Daytona 500. A driver for the Atlanta race has not been determined.

No more souvenir row: Beginning this season, the typical souvenir row of team merchandise haulers at each track will be gradually reduced in favor of a central superstore made up of climate-controlled tents and, in some instances, smaller retail areas around the track.

NASCAR, NASCAR Team Properties and Fanatics announced the 10-year join venture.

Fanatics Apparel, the company’s manufacturing and customization division, also will produce merchandise to complement the already-extensive product line.

“A merchandise center will provide a more personal, organized, comfortable and convenient shopping environment for our fans,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

“Partnering with an industry leader in Fanatics allows us to offer a comprehensive and seamless shopping experience for our fans – whether it is in-venue, online or on mobile devices.”

The track-side retail model will be phased in at NASCAR events.

Pit crew move permanent: An official with Stewart-Haas Racing confirmed a pit crew swap made between the teams of 2014 Cup series champion Kevin Harvick and teammate and co-owner Tony Stewart has been made permanent.

The move was made in time for the 10-race Chase. At the time, however, the change was announced as temporary. 

Stewart first mentioned the move being made permanent Tuesday at a USO visit with troops and military families at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.