It's been a long time since Brian Vickers last stood in victory lane after a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, and a lot has happened to him in the intervening years. But on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway none of that mattered: Vickers was back on top after clinching victory in the #55 Aarons Michael Waltrip Racing car and becoming the 11th different winner in the last 11 races at Loudon.
Vickers hardly featured in the first two-thirds of the race, hurt by a pit lane penalty that dropped him off the lead lap and stuck deep in the midfield searching for a way to get back into the race that looked unlikely to materialise until some solid driving and some canny strategy calls from his crew chief Rodney Childers put them near the front at just the right moment to press the advantage.
At the start of the race, polesitter Brad Keselowski led for the opening nine laps before two quick early cautions involving Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose allowed the Busch brothers to move to the fore and lock out the early stage of the race. Logano's incident came on lap 4 when a tyre failed and put him into the wall in turn 1 with heavy left side damage, while Ambrose came off worse from a spat with Kevin Harvick who turned the #9 into the path of Caser Mears who was the unlucky bystander most hurt by the incident.
"We had a tyre failure - that's two weeks in a row," said Logano. "It is the same thing that happened to the #1 car [Jamie McMurray] in practice. The left rear tyre blew out. It is something they need to look into because that is two cars this week and I am surprised it happened.
"It isn't like we touched anyone and rubbed it to make it go down, it just blew out, he added. "That is two weeks in a row we are going to have probably 43rd place finishes. I am just mad right now." The Penske crew got the car repaired and back out on track, but the best Logano could do was to claw his way to 40th at the finish, 91 laps down.
Kyle Busch continued to lead through to lap 62 but when the sun started to break through the overcast conditions at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway the handling of the #18 seemed to go away and left Kyle falling back off the pace, opening the door for older brother Kurt to take up the running which he did almost uninterrupted for the next 60 laps. A round of pit stops under a caution on lap 124 saw the Furniture Row Racing team put four tyres in the #78 meaning that Kurt dropped back to seventh behind those on a two-tyre only stop and that allowed Matt Kenseth to lead the next stint, but what goes around comes around and payback put Kurt back in the lead on lap 158 when it was his turn to go two tyres only and Kenseth to take four, dropping him to 14th.
One driver bucking the trend was Tony Stewart, who was following an aggressive two-tyre strategy all the way along and making it work for him, meaning that he took the restart on lap 161 after a debris caution in second place in the middle of a Busch brother sandwich at the front. Kurt had no trouble keeping the #14 under control however and led for the next stint until a debris caution on lap 202 for a grand total of 102 laps in the lead of the 302-lap race.
Another four-tyre call dropped Kurt to 11th place this time, while Stewart persisted in his two-tyre strategy and kept the lead ahead of Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne for the restart, but soon the yellows were out again this time after Danica Patrick spun out in turn 2 on lap 218 while trying to get around AJ Allmendinger. Now inside the fuel window to make it to the finish, many of the leaders used the opportunity to pit again with the notable exception of Stewart who was using every aggressive strategy in the playbook to secure the win in this race and stayed out to lead at the restart.
Again, it was a short-lived green flag stint, and this time it was a crushing blow for longtime leader Kurt Busch: battling to stay ahead of Matt Kenseth, the #78 got loose through turn 2 and made contact with the #39 of Ryan Newman which sent both cars spinning into the wall and Kenseth lucky not to get caught up in the wreck as well. Once again, Kurt was denied the chance of a race win despite having one of the strongest cars out on the track - a sadly recurring story for the former Cup champion in 2013.
“It was a three-wide accident and everybody is going hard,” said Busch. "We had a great car, which was capable of winning this race. But once again we didn't have the finish worthy of our performance.
"We took a hit in the points, but we're still in the Chase hunt – that's the good news,” he added. "But we need to have more consistency and can't have these kinds of finishes with only seven races remaining before the Chase."
With his run at New Hampshire, Busch became the first-ever Furniture Row Racing driver to lead the most laps in a Sprint Cup race, which gave the 34-year-old from Las Vegas cause for optimism: “There are so many positive things happening with this race team and that's why it hurts even more to finish where we did today with a fast race car. But I am confident when we get to Indianapolis for our next race the #78 Chevrolet will once again be fast."
Ryan Newman had less cause to be positive about things especially after learning coming into this race weekend that he would be losing his race seat at Stewart-Haas at the end of the current season and was out-of-sorts with his fellow drivers at Loudon.
“We just got whacked by a bunch of guys - the #18 hit me first, the #2 hit me next and then I guess it was Kurt that went underneath three-wide and bypassed the #20 come and clipped us and knocked us into the fence and took himself out," he fumed. "That was the best I could tell, I don't know - I guess the #20 had a little influence on it.
"We kind of were in a bad spot having a little bit older tyres," he admitted. "We didn't have the greatest car ... But just a lot of disrespect from a bunch of guys on restarts. What comes around goes around," he muttered darkly.
Newman's current team mate and boss Tony Stewart continued to lead at the restart but once again the green was short-lived before another multiple-car incident, this time taking out the third Stewart-Haas driver Danica Patrick along with Travis Kvapil, and also catching up the #17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford of Patrick's off-track partner Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
"Either I misjudged the braking or everyone jammed up a little bit," admitted Patrick. "I got sideways trying to slow down so that I didn't drive up into the back of anyone. I just got sideways and there is nothing you can do. The worst part is that you know obviously I didn't want to take anybody with me. I feel bad - what can I say. We were having a reasonable race and just didn't mean to do it."
Stenhouse - who alone of the three was able to continue, albeit many laps off the lead after repairs for extensive rear-end damage to his car - took an understanding position on the incident. "Its not the first time you get crashed on accident. I have crashed people on accident as well. It is part of it. It is the first crash we have had in a long time so we are pretty lucky that we have been making it to the end of these races. It is kind of what has kept us where we are in points. We didn't have a good car anyway today."
Stewart led at the restart on lap 241, optimistic that the number of cautions - there was soon another for Jeff Gordon spinning in turn 2 on lap 256 - would help him on his fuel conservation strategy. Behind him there was an interesting "comeback" look to several of the runners now in strong positions: Jimmie Johnson was flirting with the top six despite having been forced to start from the back of the grid after his qualification times were deleted when it was found that the #48's front ride height was too low.
Also fighting back from earlier disasters was Denny Hamlin, who was penalised for a missing lugnut during a pit stop on lap 74 and went a lap down as a result, and then had a right-front tyre blow-out on him on lap 123 just when he'd put himself in place for the lucky dog free pass. He'd finally got that lap back and was now back in the top ten, as was Brian Vickers who'd been handed a stop-and-go penalty on lap 75 for removing equipment out of the pit stall which had put him a lap down before he finally got the wavearound on lap 159.
"First pit stop of the race we made a mistake on pit road," explained crew chief Rodney Childers later. "We made a really big adjustment - a double adjustment in the rear -- and left the wrench on the deck lid and it ended up getting a penalty and getting a lap down.
"We all fought all day and Brian never gave up and just drove his butt off all day, and we just got the right opportunity at the end. Sometimes days go your way and sometimes they don't, and we've had plenty that haven't. So, just very fortunate that things worked out at the end the way that they did.
Now Vickers was firmly on the pace and starting to move into the top three in the #55 Aaron's Michael Waltrip Racing car usually piloted by Mark Martin. Even so, it seemed a lot to expect the #55 to challenge for the outright win. After Gordon's spin, it seemed that the remaining 39 laps might actually go caution free. Stewart was straining to stay ahead while aware just how critical his fuel situation was, having not stopped since lap 203; but a quick top-up for Vickers under a brief caution a dozen laps after Stewart's now allowed the #55 the luxury of not having to worry about saving gas. Vickers was past Kyle Busch for second spot on lap 281 and then four laps later he bore down on Stewart and took the lead for the first time in the race.
"I know if he got by Kyle that we were going to be in trouble," admitted Stewart. "He had been able to stalk Kyle for a really long time. It was hard to stay that close to somebody for very long. I knew when he got by that we were in trouble."
But just as it appeared the race order had been decided, there was to be another sting in the tale with a debris caution five laps from the finish which extended the race an extra mile for a green-white-chequered attempt: Vickers managed the three-wide restart with aplomb and left Stewart and Busch battling in his rear view mirror, and then Busch was obliged to jink violently to the left when the #14 abruptly slowed: Stewart was out of gas.
"It's hard to calculate how much we are saving on the cautions so thought we were about three quarters of a lap to the good there before that last caution," said Stewart. "Obviously didn't get saved as much as I thought we would." It was a costly mistake, dropping Stewart all the way down to 26th place in the final standings and losing him three spots in the Sprint Cup championship standings, putting him once more outside the all-important top ten that decide who will make the post-season Chase for the 2013 title.
Vickers meanwhile was free and clear across the line to claim the win, his first since Michigan almost four years ago. It had been a torrid time since then for the 29-year-old from North Carolina, who was dramatically sidelined in 2010 for a serious medical condition, only to return to full-time NASCAR duty in 2011 and find that his team Red Bull Racing were quitting the sport leaving him without a full-time ride going forward. Since then he's been competing for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series and running a limited number of Cup races in the #55 Aaron's car in the hope that it might lead to a full-time drive down the line when (or indeed if) the perennially youthful Martin finally decides to hang up his helmet.
"Obviously being able to win after all that is just almost unimaginable,' admitted Vickers. "It's so beyond what I was thinking about in that moment; just getting back into a race car was all I could think about," he said, adding: "It couldn't have been filled with more trials and tribulations, but thanks to so much support from friends and family and this year my fiancée Sarah."
After such a backstory it was no surprise that Vickers was a popular winner at Loudon on Sunday with many of his fellow competitors making it a point to congratulate him on the cool-down lap. Vickers then picked up the chequered flag from the officials and started to high-five fans through the fencing, and from the look of it he was fully prepared to carry on for a full one-mile lap around the superspeedway before NASCAR officials reminded him there was a podium celebration to attend.
"It feels good. Man, it feels good. I appreciate all the support from the fans here," he said. "This Aaron's Dream Machine was just awesome today. Toyota was great - the engine ran great all day. We got really hot, but it hung in there with us."
Vickers insisted that he hadn't realised that a race win was on the cards until very near the finish: "It wasn't until the end, when we started running down the #18 and the #14 that I felt we had a car capable of winning - and then I was hungry!" he laughed.
And then the final caution set up a GWC restart that could have dashed his hopes in the final second. "It was nervous. Old tyres, wheel spin - you never know what can happen here. It was tough and it was fun racing going for the win."
A strong second place on Sunday helped cement Kyle Busch's own Chase credentials, even if he was disappointed not to have the overall consistency to allow him to repeat the Nationwide Series win that he'd enjoyed at New Hampshire the day before.
"I think we were the fastest car here today, definitely on the short run," he said. "I guess I burned my front tyres off -- I don't know what the deal is. We were out front, we were leading, we were doing fine, we get to lapped traffic and I can't turn any more ... I don't know what to do on these long runs. That's all there was to it. That's our day. Just got to get better on figuring out what I got to do to do that in order to be able to pass lapped cars."
And Busch admitted that he'd simply not been able to edge Vickers for the win in the final GWC restart: "We didn't have a chance. Vickers taking the outside was going to be the car to beat and Tony obviously running out of gas there - almost wrecked with him. Just wish the race was two laps longer maybe and Vickers would have run out and maybe we would have been able to win the thing."
But like the majority of drivers, teams and fans at Loudon on Sunday, if it couldn't be him then Kyle was happy to see Vickers in victory lane: "Congratulations to those guys - it's great. It's cool to see the #55 car in the victory lane," he said. "Certainly, we really wanted to win here, but we know what we need to do to work on our race car definitely when we come back for the Chase race."
Jeff Burton, Brad Keselowski and Aric Almirola were all close behind Busch across the line, with Jimmie Johnson slightly further back as he finished in a strong sixth place that helps extend his lead in the championship standings to 56 points over Clint Bower who came home in 13th. That's the biggest margin anyone has enjoyed in the Cup standings since the new scoring system was introduced in 2011.
"We had a great race car [but] once you get to the top ten that's a different game trying to pass cars and work your way to the front there," he explained of his afternoon's work. "Really the lane that you were in on a restart had a huge impact on how many cars you could pass. A few times I was on the outside and made my way to third and then a few times on the inside and I slipped back.
"All in all a great day for the Lowe's team and just very proud of the effort these guys put in week in and week out," he added. "We are all going to enjoy this off week and then come back and get ready to go to Indy."
While Johnson's Chase position is unquestionably secure, the same is far from true for Denny Hamlin who must have all-but given up his title hopes for 2013 after this weekend. Having fought his way back to to the top ten in the final stint, Hamlin ended up dropping to 21st position at the line after needing fuel before the GWC restart.
There was also no fairytale story for Morgan Shepherd, who succeeded in becoming the oldest man to ever start a Cup race a the age of 71 but who was off the pace from the start and finally ordered by race control to come onto pit lane after 69 laps of being unable to make acceptable pace. The Brian Keselowski Racing crew did what they could to find more performance from the #52 car and Shepherd returned for another 30 laps before finally calling it a day, citing vibration issues.Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings