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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Vickers out to prove he can still compete after illness

Brian Vickers was right on the cusp of doing something special when everything went bad in 2010 and he had to put his racing career on hold.

I saw him dominate a race weekend at MIS in 2009, and knew he could do great things in a racecar if the Red Bull team game him the proper equipment.

Then, something much more important than racing happened ... and Vickers learned his life could be in jeopardy if kept racing. His heart couldn't handle it, and he needed surgery.

It couldn't have been easy for him to walk away ... we all know racers are pretty dedicated to their craft. Looking back at it now, VIckers said it was a difficult process to get back into a racecar, and he wondered if it might never happen.

"It was obviously a long process. Not only finding out what happened and trying to figure out what's the problem, how do wesolve it, where do we start -- you know, going down the list. Going through the surgeries, having the heart surgery was not asmall thing. The doctor said, 'You need to have heart surgery.' It's like, 'Whoa.'" Vickers said. "Making that decision, going through that process and then training again and getting back into the routine and getting prepared for the season. Going back to my first test at Disney was a really big moment. Being back in a car and not knowing -- there was a point in time in my life when I wasn't sure if I was ever going to race again."

So what was it like being on the sidelines? Not so good, Vickers said.

"Watching a Cup race that you're supposed to be in from the sidelines, sucks. It's horrible. I've used this quote several times and I want to give the guy credit that said it first because it's true, but he said it the best, Dale Earnhardt said one time when he was out of the car that it was like watching his wife cheat on him. That's pretty much what it felt like sitting on top of that box," Vickers explained.

"That's why I didn't go to a lot of the races. When I was there, I was just miserable."

And don't expect him to want to take baby steps now that's he's back ... the former Busch series champion still has his eyes on a Cup title, and his illness and layoff from the sport hasn't changed that.

"I just want to win a championship. I do believe that the experience has made me a better person and therefore I think that translates on the race track."

Wood Brothers team believes Bayne is special
I have written a lot about how Trevor Bayne is one of the stars of the future in NASCAR, and apparently I'm not alone in my views.

Donnie Wingo, crew chief of the Wood Brothers' #21 car that will be driven by Bayne in 2011, said that it's clear Bayne is just flat-out fast in a racecar and should turn some heads this year.

"From the time he got in the car at Texas last year to the end of the race, he is just one of those guys that just has this knack. The part I liked about Texas was he did a real good job of racing for us. A kid like that, he has the speed, a lot of times it takes some of those guys to get the racing part down but I think he already has that down," Wingo said.

Team co-owner Eddie Wood echoed those sentiments.
“For one thing, he is very mature for his age. He is very aware of what it takes to be a race car driver in the Sprint Cup series. I think he understands that really well. He is just really good with his feedback in the race car and all-around is really ready to go racing, in every single aspect.”

Despite Bayne being very young, Wood said that doesn't mean he's inexperienced.

“Trevor has been racing since he was 5 years old, so if you do the math he has 15-years of experience racing. Racing is racing. The communication that he and Donnie (Wingo) had at Texas and as well as the tire test here at Daytona in December has been great. They are communicating really well. They seem to really be good with where each other are at. That is where it starts, making sure that the crew chief and engineers and the people that are controlling what is in the car and why it is in there mesh with the driver. So far it really seems to be doing that. It is one of those things that you can’t really make happen. It just is or it is not. Fortunately for us it looks like it is and I think we will be fine.”

So what does Bayne think about all these kind words? That's simple; he's going to do his best to prove his employers right.

“I think I just go out there and race. That is what I did at Texas. We went out and had to make it on time there which is different for the first five races this year because we have points. We will be able to work on race setup those first five and try to knock out a top-15. If we can run top-15’s those first five races then that would set us up to be decent on the points. That is what we need to do to try accumulating more sponsorship to keep going. We are gunning for 17 races, but if we can get more sponsorship we can keep going. We want to do as well as we can in the first five to help us set up the rest of the season.”

And if he does do well and runs strong all season, you can bet he'll be in consideration for a 2012 seat at sister team Roush Fenway in case a seat opens up -- which is possible if David Ragan fails to deliver solid results or one of his teammates doesn't stay with the team.

Waltrip back in #15 to attempt Daytona
10 years after winning the Daytona 500 on a day remembered for NASCAR's biggest tragedy, Michael Waltrip will be in the #15 car attempting to qualify for the race. (he'll have to race his way in, as a rumored points swap from the TRG team fell through).

"Ten years ago I won the 500 in my first race with NAPA and we know February 18, 2001 is a day that NASCAR fans will never forget. What looked to be a storybook ending turned to tragedy seconds later," he said. "To mark the 10th anniversary of that race and my 25th consecutive 500 will be quite emotional for me and fans alike."

Waltrip goes into detail about the events of that weekend, among other topics, in his book "In the Blink of an Eye" -- which goes on sale Feb. 1.

Shorter races sought by Fox
The chairman of Fox Sports went on record this week to say that he prefers shorter races ... specifically he wants them to be three hours at a maximum.

I agree in theory, as shorter races mean the action on track will heat up quicker. There are some obvious exceptions, though ... you can't exactly shorten the Coke 600, for example.

But I don't think fans would be upset if some 500 mile affairs became 400 milers, or even less ... as long as the racing was good. That's really all the fans want.

Shane Hmiel improving
Good news continues to come from the Hmiel family, who said that Shane Hmiel, who was paralyzed after a Silver Crown race in October, has now regained use of his limbs, and is still clinging to hopes he can race again one day.

Many people probably remember Shane from his younger days, when he was permanently banned from NASCAR after failing several drug tests. That's ancient history now, and this latest setback -- which came as Shane was trying to get back up the racing ladder -- is the start of yet another chapter in this young driver's career.

His father Steve Hmiel, who works for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, said doctors think Shane will be able to walk with crutches by this fall, so there's still a long battle to fight -- especially since Shane has a six-inch plate in his neck and two eight-inch rods in his back.

I wish him the best in his recovery.

Key season for David Ragan
Roush Fenway teammate David Ragan is under pressure heading into 2011, and he knows it. After showing promise in 2008, he regressed in 2009 and 2010 and many people wondered whether he deserved such a high-profile ride.
He knows all eyes will be on him this year, including those of the people in charge at Roush.

“We have a lot of expectations on ourselves for this year. The last couple years we have been real inconsistent with a few runs here and there but we could never get in a rhythm where we knocked off top-5 and top-10 finishes. That is what gets you in the Chase and gets the most points. We have got to run a lot of mistake free races."

He said he believes the team can provide him the cars he needs to run well every weekend and possibly reach Victory Lane.

"The biggest thing is that we have our race cars really fast at Roush Fenway racing. I think the engine department is really prepared more so today than they have been in a couple of years. Our race cars are very nice and lightweight and seem to be very fast. That gives us a lot of confidence going into the year and that is a good thing. We all put pressure on ourselves because this is an important year for us and for our team. We want to get Ford back into victory lane and get UPS into victory lane. I want to win a Cup race very badly."

New start for Marcos Ambrose
New team, new manufacturer, new beginning.

That's the setup for Marcos Ambrose in 2011, who returns to driving a Ford and will be one of two drivers in the stable for the newly restructured Richard Petty Motorsports, which went through quite a bit of drama at the end of 2010 and went through a change of ownership.

Ambrose, who has always been great on road courses, but had started to show flashes of greatness on ovals in the past couple years, and he hopes to continue that in 2011.

He hopes not only to compete this year, but to battle for wins on a regular basis.

“We need to win, no doubt about it. We expect to win. We have a company behind us with Stanley and Dewalt that want to win races and it is what we are here to do. If we can win races and be consistent then you never know what is possible.”

He said he is honored to be part of team that bears the name of a 7-time NASCAR champion.

“Well, it is a little intimidating. Not only now will (Richard Petty) say ‘Good-day, how is it going?’ but he will also want to know why I didn’t win the race," Ambrose joked. "There is a lot of prestige being associated with Richard Petty Motorsports and it is a real honor for me to drive for The King and I never thought I would get that chance. I am looking forward to the opportunity and hopefully he is going to be proud of me."

It won't be easy for the team, Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger, as any time an ownership change happens it can create a heavy adjustment period, especially since this team nearly went out of business last fall.

But Ambrose has talent, and the enthusiasm for racing that is needed to win, so the question is whether the team can provide him the equipment that will allow him to compete with the big names in the sport.

I hope that is the case, though the more realistic scenario is that will take a while for RPM to provide competitive cars.

I hope Marcos proves me wrong, though, as I'd love to see him and A.J. running up front with the usual characters.

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