By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief
After battling his own health issues the past several years, Brian Vickers is set for a golden opportunity in replacement duty for an injured Tony Stewart.
Stewart-Haas Racing announced on Friday that Vickers will run the Sprint Unlimited (a non-points event) Saturday night, and the 58th annual Daytona 500.
Vickers, 32, has seen his promising career derailed with a series of health issues that date back to 2010. However, after missing all but opening two races last season, the battle-tested North Carolina native has overcome a recurring blood clot problem and has been medically cleared by NASCAR to compete this season.
The irony in all of this is that an oft-injured Vickers is called upon to replace another injured driver with whom he shared a brief rivalry several seasons ago.
The closest comparison in recent memory of something like this happening isn’t so recent.
In fact, you would have to go back to the 1998 NASCAR season when the late Dale Earnhardt talked longtime rival Darrell Waltrip into driving for his team in the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet, replacing an injured Steve Park for 13 races.
The opportunity for Waltrip came after several mediocre seasons driving for his own team, but the three-time Sprint Cup champion proved that he still had the talent, with near wins in Fontana and Pocono that year.
Although Waltrip was in his early 50’s when he drove for Earnhardt, he knew there wouldn’t be another chance to drive for a frontrunner again – but he made the most of it.
The reality is that Vickers, even at 32, may never get another shot after this one.
The story with Vickers is unique one.
He won the XFINITY Series title in 2003 with Hendrick Motorsports, the same season he made his Sprint Cup Series debut. With high hopes early on in his career, Vickers struggled to meet the lofty expectations, winning one race (and a controversial one at that) at Talladega before leaving for NASCAR start-up Red Bull Racing Team. A daunting task that saw the team fail to make several starts throughout their debut season, but by 2009 Vickers became a championship contender – scoring Red Bull’s maiden win at Michigan, six poles and Chase birth.
After looking poised to fulfill those same lofty expectations that came when he entered the sport, the unthinkable happened the following season when Vickers was hit by a series of medical issues.
The end result hurt both Red Bull and Vickers, as the team shut down in 2012, leaving the North Carolina native without a ride.
It wasn’t too long that Vickers was out of a ride, as he got the chance to split time with semi-retired Mark Martin at Michael Waltrip Racing in the No. 55 Aaron’s Toyota in 2013. Later that season, Vickers drove to his third career victory at New Hampshire, and solidified a full-time seat for 2014 with MWR.
Everything came together once again for Vickers.
Vickers failed to win in 2014, but showed flashes that hope was on the horizon.
But then 2015 happened.
The medical problems popped back up and Vickers was forced to step out of the car once again.
So, here we are.
One of the most medically-beleaguered drivers in NASCAR history is now replacing one of its greatest champions, on its biggest stage.
After leading an upstart team from the depths of racing hell to championship contenders, and coming back twice from medical issues, the talent of Vickers cannot be denied.
The history of health concerns makes it hard for any team to commit to the 32-year-old, but maybe, just maybe, he’s finally got it right.
So, while Stewart begins the road to recovery to get back in the No. 14 and begin his retirement tour, Vickers begins a road to recovery of his own.
The golden opportunity is here.
SHR has championship-winning cars, championship-winning teammates, and a championship-winning owner.
So, it all falls on Vickers now.
Will this be the end? Or is this just the beginning?
Time will tell, but we have 500 miles to find out if Vickers can make the most of it.
Image: Chris Trotman/Getty Images