Brian Vickers took home a nice trophy and a six-figure paycheck for delivering his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win in nearly four years.
But the win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway should also guarantee the Cup Series part-timer something much bigger in 2014: a full-time Sprint Cup Series ride with Michael Waltrip Racing.
If the team owner has his way, that's exactly the type of future that will lie ahead for Vickers in this story of retribution and revival. But that's nothing new: Michael Waltrip has been saying that for weeks.
"[Vickers] is our guy, and we're trying to get all the pieces of the puzzle put together so that he can drive the No. 55 and race for a championship next year just like Clint [Bowyer] and Martin Truex Jr. are doing this year," Waltrip said after Truex's win at Sonoma Raceway in June. "That's our goal, and hopefully over the next few weeks or months we'll be able to say exactly how that will work."
The pesky obstacle still in the way of Vickers—a full-time Nationwide Series driver this season for Joe Gibbs Racing who is racing nine races in the car typically campaigned by part-time veteran Mark Martin—getting a full-time ride next season is the detail that trips up many teams: sponsorship. NASCAR, as a whole, continues to see the costs for its teams to compete and win at the highest level continue to rise. That's why many cars in the garage area carry an assortment of primary sponsors throughout the season.
After sponsoring Michael Waltrip and later Michael Waltrip Racing for 12 seasons, Aaron's—a furniture rental and rent-to-own store—has seemingly gotten some cold feet over extending their large-scale partnership and full-time support of the No. 55. Without signed contracts, MWR isn't going to offer a full-time seat to Vickers that it can't fund for a full season.
But negotiations are continuing between MWR officials and Aaron's officials, and if history is any guide, Vickers' win could have come at the most opportune of times.
In 2010, Aaron's signed a two-year extension with MWR and announced it at Indianapolis Motor Speedway just two weeks after former driver David Reutimann took the No. 00 to Victory Lane at the Chicagoland Speedway.
Aaron's and MWR, however, shouldn't be signing the deal with Vickers just because he finally nabbed a win to end the four-year drought. Instead, it's the personal and professional transitions that he's gone through over that span that should make Vickers—he turns 30 this year—a no-brainer candidate for the job.
Vickers came to NASCAR in the youth-movement era that saw team owners across the sport aggressively seeking the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart by elevating young drivers to the sport's upper levels exponentially faster than the sport's traditions. Some went well and some didn't. Vickers was somewhere in between.
He won the 2003 Nationwide Series title at the age of 19 and made his full-time Sprint Cup Series debut in the next season with Hendrick Motorsports. He tallied a single win with the team in 2006 and later moved to Red Bull Racing during the energy drink maker's first foray into the sport. But in 2010, after securing the team's first win the season prior, Vickers was sidelined for the season after just 11 races.
A visit to a hospital for chest pain ultimately revealed Vickers had blood clots in his lungs and leg. The lifesaving exam, and accompanying prescription medication that followed, made it impossible for Vickers to safely race until the 2011 season. But by the time of Vickers' return, the future of Red Bull's participation in the sport was cloudy. Red Bull closed after 2011, leaving Vickers without a place to race.
But it was that closure, and ensuing search for full-time driving roles, that may have allowed Vickers to grow the most. He had finished 2011 with a flurry of on-track incidents with Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray that each aimed a poor light at his patience and control. He needed to re-develop his reputation and prove his ability to perform.
That happened over the course of nine total NASCAR-sanctioned races that Vickers started in 2012. In six of those races, he finished in the top 10. In four, he finished in the fifth or better. Vickers also developed as a driver outside of NASCAR by racing the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year.
The product was his full-time ride with JGR in the Nationwide Series this year and a slightly expanded schedule with MWR. If nothing else, the signings proved that top-tier team owners trusted Vickers again.
NASCAR drivers can sometimes take a checkered flag thanks to sheer luck and misfortune at the expense of others. The racing is tight enough that odd things, like David Ragan's win at Talladega in May, can and will happen. Those aren't races that define a driver's ability enough to sign long-term commitments.
Brian Vickers' win at New Hampshire wasn't a flash in the pan with little substance. It also wasn't necessarily an example of a driver who had been so close to winning before that finally delivered. Instead, Vickers' win was a direct representation of his capabilities in a well-run team with solid performance.
Vickers held his cool under late-race pressure. He beat the sport's best, even when a caution flag brought them right to his door handle. And he did it as a driver without the luxuries of being a full-time team member.
No matter the hurdle, Vickers is ready for a full-time return to Sprint Cup racing in 2014. Let's see if Michael Waltrip Racing can figure it out.
Quotes used in this article were obtained firsthand from NASCAR transcription services.