It's safe to say that Brian Vickers is the only Sprint Cup driver today who's obsessed with Albert Einstein—Vickers's favorite quote is "Imagination is more important than knowledge"—and also the only one who aspires to learn Mandarin. "China is the next superpower," he says, "and we better be ready." Though only 25, Vickers is one of most cerebral figures in the Cup garage, and his heady driving in recent weeks has put him on the cusp of qualifying for his first Chase. His intelligence was evident last Saturday night at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, which had been one of his least congenial tracks on the circuit; Vickers's average finish in 10 career Cup starts at the .533-mile oval was 26th. Looking to leave Thunder Valley with his Chase hopes alive, Vickers did what every driver hates to do: He played it conservative.
Riding the high line around the track, Vickers rarely challenged other cars for the first 400 laps, keeping his fenders clean. Only over the final 100 laps did he begin to gamble, dashing through turns three-wide, nudging cars out of the way. He leapfrogged from 25th position to finish 12th—a small victory for the 83 team. With two races left in the regular season, Vickers is now 14th in the standings, only 39 points behind Matt Kenseth for the 12th and final spot in the 10-race playoffs. More significantly, he is well-positioned to make a run at Kenseth because the final two tracks of the regular season are ones on which Vickers has had some success: He finished fifth at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March, and he won the pole at Richmond International Speedway in May before winding up in 15th place.
"Our best days are ahead of us," says Ryan Pemberton, Vickers's crew chief. "Brian has just raced so smart this year. That's his biggest strength.... He's the kind of driver you can build an organization around."
Which is exactly what Team Red Bull has done. Launched in 2007 as a start-up organization, Red Bull hired Vickers away from Hendrick Motorsports for its inaugural season. As start-ups tend to do, Red Bull floundered early; Vickers failed even to qualify for 13 races in '07. In '08 he showed improvement with six top 10 finishes. But his turnaround has been so dramatic in Year 3 that last Thursday, Red Bull signed Vickers to a multiyear contract extension.
"It's been a slow process of catching up to the big teams like Hendrick and Roush Fenway," says Pemberton. "They have 20 years' worth of notes; we have two. But we're getting there."
This past off-season Pemberton built a new chassis for Vickers's Toyota, and since February, Vickers has flashed impressive straight-line speed. He has won a series-best six poles, and the team has especially surged since the circuit began revisiting tracks from earlier in the season. Over the last eight races Vickers has scored more points than any other driver, and on Aug. 16 he won his first race for Red Bull by snookering Jimmie Johnson on fuel mileage at Michigan International Speedway.
Late on Saturday night, after he parked his Toyota in the garage, a smiling Vickers slapped high fives with crew members. Then he hurried off into the darkness, as if he couldn't wait to get to Atlanta.
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The only driver who had a better points day at Bristol than Brian Vickers was Kyle Busch (below), who won his fourth race of the season. Busch jumped two places to 13th in the standings; he is now 34 points behind Matt Kenseth and will jockey with Vickers to seize the final Chase spot. Busch held off a hard-charging Mark Martin, who was making his 1,000th start in NASCAR, to snap a 13-race streak in which he failed to finish in the top three—his longest such run since 2006. When asked what his game plan is for the two final pre-Chase races, Busch rubbed his eyes, smiled and said, "Win."
JOHN HARRELSON/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR (CAR)
PIT BULL With his team gaining in experience, the surging Vickers leads all drivers in points scored over the last eight races.
JARED C. TILTON/ICON SMI (VICKERS)
[See caption above]
SAM SHARPE/US PRESSWIRE (BUSCH)