Brian Vickers will miss only two races in 2015 as a result of the heart surgery that he underwent in December, and will be able to return to action in time for the third race of the 2015 season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 8, his team Michael Waltrip Racing has announced.
"The doctors gave me a clean bill of health and said I will be better than before,” said Vickers. "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."
Vickers has suffered from health issues twice in recent years, most serious in 2010 when he missed most of the season after blood clots were traced back to a problem with his heart. He also missed the end of the 2013 issue with unrelated blood clotting issues. Vickers' latest surgery was a result of his body rejecting a patch used in the 2010 procedure, forcing doctors to replace it.
"I have literally put my life in their hands twice and I cannot begin to express my level of gratitude," said Vickers. "I was not feeling well in December, so I went to see Doctor William Downey in Charlotte. He discovered my body was rejecting a patch that was surgically placed over a hole in my heart a few years ago.
"He and Doctor R Mark Stiegel immediately went to work on correcting the problem," Vickers continued. "I also want to thank the great counsel along the way by Doctor Jerry Petty, Doctor Robert Heyer and my haematologist Doctor Stephan Moll from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
"Now all of my focus is getting ready so when I return we are prepared to win races and the championship in my Aaron's Dream Machine," he added.
It's also been confirmed that NASCAR have agreed to grant Vickers a waiver to the requirement that Sprint Cup drivers attempt to quality or race in all 26 regular seasons if they wish to remain Chase-eligible for a shot at the championship title.
"With the clearance from his physicians, Brian Vickers has satisfied all necessary NASCAR requirements to resume racing on March 5," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's executive vice-president and chief racing development officer. "Further, NASCAR has reviewed the circumstances surrounding his situation and has determined that he will maintain Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup eligibility despite neither entering nor attempting to qualify in the first two championship events, provided he meets all other necessary eligibility requirements."
Vickers will now only miss the first two races of the season, the Daytona 500 on February 22 and the following race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Team co-owner Michael Waltrip will drive the #55 for the season opener, with the team yet to decide who will fill in for Vickers in Atlanta.
Stewart-Haas sticks with crew changes
Stewart-Haas Racing has confirmed that the swap of crews between the #4 and the #14 cars that was put in place for the end of last season will be made permanent for 2015.
After making it into the Chase championship play-offs, Kevin Harvick in the #4 car was given the more experienced crew that had previously serviced team boss Tony Stewart's #14 entry since 2011. The switch helped Harvick race to his first Cup title in November.
Originally intended to be temporary, Stewart confirmed on Tuesday that the change of crews between the two teams would not be reversed for the new season after all.
"There really wasn't that much difference in terms of their times on paper, it was within a tenth of a second,” Stewart told NASCAR.com. "We just felt like that chemistry worked really well.
"I really liked my guys at the end of the year, and I'll miss having my full-time guys with me, but I think we're all comfortable with the change and look at it as we all work under the same roof and we're all one team," he added.
SHR's other two cars, the #10 entry driven by Danica Patrick and the #41 car of Kurt Busch, also swapped key personnel during last year's Chase period, with Patrick losing long-time crew chief Tony Gibson in the process.
His place on the #10 was taken by Daniel Knost originally on an interim basis, but the team has now confirmed that this appointment had also been made permanent following the trial period at the end of 2014.
Cole Whitt joins Front Row
Cole Whitt has been added to the Front Row Motorsports line-up alongside existing drivers David Ragan and David Gilliland.
The announcement means that Front Row will now be a full time three-car team in 2015. Randy Cox will be Whitt's crew chief, and there will be primary sponsorship from Speed Stick for 10 races with more to be announced in the future.
"Bob Jenkins is a smart businessman and has grown his team the right way over the years, and I'm really looking forward to being a part of that growth,” said Whitt, who initially raced for Swan Racing at the start of 2014 until his entry was taken over by BK Racing.
"The 2014 season was great for me as a driver," said the 23-year-old. "We had some important personal victories and some areas where we'll want to improve."
Sprint to end Cup sponsorship
Mobile communications company Sprint is to end its title sponsorship of NASCAR's premier Cup championship when the existing agreement expires at the end of 2016 after a 13-year relationship.
"We are proud of our association with NASCAR's top series but have made the decision not to extend our sponsorship beyond the next two years," said Sprint's vice-president of marketing, Steve Gaffney. "As we look to the future, Sprint is focused on investing in maintaining a competitive edge and providing consumers with the best value in wireless."
"Sprint has been a great partner," said NASCAR's chief operating officer Brent Dewar. "They've done a lot to help us grow the sport together at a very important time in our history.
"They made it very clear to us that they're proud to have been a partner with NASCAR, have seen great value in their investment and are very happy to share that with any brand that comes in to replace them," he added.
NASCAR will now commence the search for a new title sponsor for the series. Cable brand XFINITY is to take over from insurance giant Nationwide as the title sponsors of the second-tier series, while Camping World has recently extended its deal with the Truck Series through to 2022.
"The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is a very unique, premium sports marketing platform with strong momentum, so we are very confident of moving forward in 2017 with an outstanding new partner," said Brett Jewkes, NASCAR's senior vice-president and chief communications officer. "In the meantime, we look forward to Sprint's partnership on the best racing series in the world for the next two seasons."
New video system for pit road officiating
NASCAR is introducing a new video-based officiating system for pit road penalties in 2015, the officiating body announced this week.
The system will use 45 cameras in six clusters located on the grandstand side of the racetrack to send live video to a trailer where it will be monitored by eight officials, with each official watching a different stop assigned to them randomly. Laser measurements of the dimensions of pit road at each venue will also enable officials to ensure a car stops inside the designated area and determine whether crews go over the pit wall too early. It will also be able to tell whether there have been violations such as dragging equipment out of the pit stall or uncontrolled tyres.
The official assigned to the pit stop will be able to review the video and confirm or overrule possible violations before the penalty is issued to the team. NASCAR is hoping that the new system - which was tested alongside existing officiating methods for the last 11 races of the 2011 season - will improve accuracy and provide firm evidence of an infraction to show to teams in the event of a dispute.
“How can a human being watch a car and watch six people jumping over and really judge all this?” said NASCAR's senior vice-president Gene Stefanyshyn. “It's difficult to do. They've done a great job, but we have the ability to do better so that's what we're trying to do.”
Officials will no longer rule on whether a wheel is fastened with five lug nuts or if the lug nuts are tight as that is no longer a violation during a race, but teams risk a $50,000 fine, 15-point deduction and a crew chief suspension if a wheel subsequently comes off out on the track.