Racing Beat

Brian Vickers making the adjustment to the big time.

New Kid on the Block
Rookies have proven to be a quick study in NASCAR Nextel Cup racing, especially in recent years. Tony Stewart stormed out of the gate and drove like a veteran as a novice, as did current stars such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth.

Two of the three have already claimed series championships, and Little E is expected to grab one sooner than later.

Before the 2004 season got under way, the young gun to watch was Brian Vickers. Thought to be a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year honors, some even touted Vickers as a threat to challenge for all the marbles at the ripe old age of 21.

Thus far, that scenario has not played out. At least not yet.

Multiple winner Kasey Kahne has become the golden boy rookie, while Vickers has logged just three Top 10 finishes this season – although he has pulled down more than $1 million in prize money. The driver of the GMAC Financial-sponsored Chevrolet is hardly ready to panic, but he admits moving from a Busch Series crown to the biggest of big leagues has been a major adjustment.

“It’s changed everything,” says Vickers. “A lot of things were the same in the Busch Series, but there is just so much more of it at the Nextel Cup Series level. The schedule is more intense, and the competition is more intense. The responsibilities from the sponsors, the press and the media are more intense.

“You’ve just got to be able to handle all of that and still make time for your family and friends and be able to stay focused in the car.” Yet Vickers realizes year one in the Nextel Cup Series isn’t supposed to be easy.

“It’s definitely tough,” he says. “That’s what the rookie season is for is to learn and grow. I’ve got great teammates to help me with all that and give me some good advice.”

Vickers has sought the counsel of teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon this year, and he says the swapping of information has been helpful. “Jeff and I have talked quite a bit – and Jimmie as well – about so many things,” Vickers explains. “Any time I go to a new racetrack, I talk to those guys.”

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Vickers began racing go-karts at age 10, winning 83 events and claiming three national championships. He graduated to the Allison Legacy Cars series in 1998, taking five checkers in one season before moving up to the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series.

As a 16-year-old, Vickers logged six Late Model victories and had 11 poles. Following a stint in the USAR ProCup series, he made his Busch debut in 2001, and two years later at age 20 he had already hoisted the series trophy. Now the trick is continuing that progression in the biggest league of all.

“I’ve learned a lot obviously,” Vickers said. “The team has learned a lot. More importantly, we’ve learned how to work together. It’s not that we weren’t working together at the beginning of the season. There weren’t any kind of disputes going on there or anything. But it took me a while to really build that chemistry with that team in the Busch Series last year.

“I personally like to build it solidly and patiently. I like to build it for the long run to go win championships instead of pushing it too quickly and maybe run good at the beginning and then fall off at the end.”

Regardless of how far Vickers goes in 2004, he already has a vote of confidence from Johnson, who is having a huge, multi-victory 2004. Johnson insists the youngster is growing up quickly.

“When you’re around him on the track and you see his professionalism and commitment to racing, you think he’s 30 or older,” Johnson said.

“But when you step back and look, you think, ‘Yeah, he’s 20.’ But somewhere along the line he’s picked up a great deal of maturity and commitment to racing, and it shows. To be able to win the Busch championship and be as competitive as he’s been in Cup, he definitely has his act together.”

Reagan and The King
He was the king of NASCAR long before 1984, but it was 20 years ago when Richard Petty won his 200th career race at Daytona – in front of Ronald Reagan, no less. It marked the first time a sitting president had witnessed a NASCAR race, and Reagan even gave the command for the gentlemen to start their engines.

“It really doesn’t seem like it’s been 20 years,” says Petty, whose milestone win came in the Firecracker 400. “It was a real special day. You wind up in front of the president of the United States on July 4 and win the race in the final laps. All of it could have been scripted. Nobody would have believed it.”

The win proved to be the last of Petty’s career, and he spent the last 10 years on the track as mostly a non-factor. Still, his legacy appears safe.

With 200 checkers he still has 95 more victories than his closest competitor, David Pearson.

“That race was the pinnacle of my career,” Petty says. “Winning 200 anywhere would have been great, but doing it under those circumstances and beating Cale (Yarborough), who I’d been racing with for years – it was all in one day, and it was just fantastic. It still is. I don’t think there’s anything to match it in the annals of racing.”

Stewart in Trouble Again
Speaking of Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers, Stewart has been placed on probation, fined $50,000 and docked 25 championship points after punching Vickers following a race at Sonoma, Calif., over the summer. Joe Gibbs Racing, which owns Stewart’s car, was also docked 25 owner points.

Many expected NASCAR to suspend Stewart, who has a history of run-ins with competitors, reporters and NASCAR officials despite undergoing anger management therapy, but it didn’t happen.

“I understand and accept NASCAR’s penalty,” Stewart says. “With NASCAR’s continued growth and their rise in mainstream popularity, I realize their rules have become stricter than they were in the past. And after meeting with Brian France (NASCAR chairman and CEO), I know it’s my job to live within those rules. I’m putting this incident behind me, and I plan no further comments.

J.D. Gibbs, who is running Joe Gibbs Racing while Joe himself gears up to coach the Washington Redskins in the NFL this season, also weighed in on the penalty.

“On behalf of everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing, we agree with NASCAR that Tony Stewart’s actions after the Sonoma race were unacceptable,” Gibbs says. “We understand the reason for the penalties handed down by NASCAR, and we accept their decision.”

During the 2004 season Stewart also has been accused of driving too aggressively on the track and being the cause of several accidents. His run-in with Vickers came after his car hit Vickers’ at Sonoma.