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Brian Vickers: The Comeback Kid

  Brian Vickers, intently studying computer analysis of Daytona 500 testing data (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   It was an emotional scene here this week, Brian Vickers returning to the track, after spending most of 2010 sidelined while recovering from a near-fatal bout of mysterious blood clots.
   "It feels damn good," Vickers said, almost jubilantly.

   And not only was the 27-year-old Thomasville, N.C., racer back in Jay Frye's car, but he posted some of the quickest laps in Thursday afternoon drafting, at 194 mph, with new teammate Kasey Kahne.
   No more Coumadin. No more Plavix.
   Doctors have completely cleared him; Vickers is no longer on any medications, or under any limits.
    "I feel great. I feel amazing. I'm in a great place right now.
   "I've been training a lot. On a bike, or swimming laps, or swimming in the ocean. 
    "Just this past weekend I was swimming a couple miles a day – spear-fishing 18 or 20 feet down.  I caught a lobster I couldn't even fit two hands around. Tasted good too.
     "I'm in great shape, probably the best shape I've ever been in."
   Light misting rain slowed Friday action at Daytona International Speedway, during the first week of Daytona 500 testing in three years.
   But it certainly didn't dim the thrill of watching Vickers getting back in this game.
   Vickers was off to a hot start last season, with good runs at Daytona, Atlanta, Martinsville and Darlington, when he was suddenly struck down, as if by lightning, one night in mid-May, while on a good-will tour around Washington, D.C., as part of NASCAR's advance team for the Dover, Del., tour stop.
   To be blunt, Vickers could easily have died from the blood clots. He spent the next six months on powerful blood thinners, and even needed heart surgery.
   Now, though, he's fitter than ever, hiking and diving. He says he's here to win the Daytona 500. And he's been a pretty darned good plate racer over the years at Talladega (where he won in that controversial 2006 finish) and Daytona.

  Brian Vickers, working the crowd at Daytona (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Vickers has always been fast; in 2009 he was on the pole at California, Richmond, Michigan, Chicago, even Sonoma, though he's not known as a road course whiz. And he won that summer's Michigan 400 from the pole. He made the chase that fall, though floundered through the final weeks. But he opened 2010 back on track.

    "Everyone keeps asking me how does it feel to be back?" the remarkably articulate Vickers says. "You look for all of these words and ways to describe your emotions and your feelings...and sometimes there's just nothing to say.
    "I wasn't sure if I would ever be back up here talking to you guys about being in the car again...and here I sit.
    "I'm really happy about it.  It's been a long year."
    No kidding.
    The heart surgery?
     "Any time you're having heart surgery, it's not a small thing. But the technology and procedures today are just unbelievable.  I was on a bicycle climbing a mountain at 10,000 feet with friends two weeks after that surgery." 

    Now driving Daytona is typically much easier, physically, than driving Phoenix and Vegas and other early spring tracks. So it may be a few weeks till Vickers can really show how rusty or not he actually is, after sitting out so many months. Particularly since NASCAR still hasn't lifted its two-year no-testing rules.
    But here at least he's on top of the world. And it shows.
    "I'm probably at the best place I've ever been -- personally, professionally, emotionally," he says. "And I'm ready to go kick butt."
    After the gauntlet of emotions he braved through last summer and fall, Vickers could well be a wild card here, as a comeback kid.
    "There were a lot of emotional states I went through....pretty much the full range of everything you can imagine."
    Vickers didn't go into hiding last year while recuperating. He showed up at a couple of tracks, to give updates. And last August at Bristol he said the doctors expected to give their okay to his returning to the wheel this season.
    But those first few days in the hospital in May, well, he concedes he didn't quite get it at first:
   "Right in the middle of the battle, if you want to call it that, laying in the hospital bed....when I told the doctor I needed to be at practice Friday, and this was Wednesday....he tried not to laugh: 'I don't know how to tell you this, but it's going to be a long time before you're ever in a car. If ever.'"
    That would have been a big-gulp moment to most.
    But Vickers, ever analytical, as he typically is, says "That's when I was probably my strongest. At that moment. 
    "Trying to figure out and evaluate.
    "'Okay, you didn't say I couldn't race.....so you're telling me there's a chance.'
    "Like in the movie Dumb and Dumber. 'One in a million, right?' 
     "That was my attitude: just focused on how can I get back in a car. 
     "First focus on staying alive, and then getting back in a car."
     Imagine the emotion, and the pressure...and the intrinsic doubts.
    "It really makes you learn a lot about what you really love," Vickers said slowly. "You learn a lot about yourself....you really learn a lot about yourself. 
     "The first thing I asked him was 'When am I going to be back in a race car,' not 'How long do I have to live.'
     "Now it wasn't that bad -- but my lungs were shutting down."

     At first Vickers had planned to spend some of his recovery time at the track, following the team action as closely as he could.
     But then he changed plans. Another lightning bolt.
     "Just sitting there on the box, trying to be supportive for the team....but it was just tearing me apart inside," he says. 
     "I was just a wreck, a complete wreck. My stress was out the roof, my medicines weren't working.
     "That was probably when it hit me. 
      "Usually in the middle of battles is when I'm the strongest...and then when everything quiets down, it hits me."
     And he realized his racing career just might be over. 
      "There was a point where I didn't know if I was ever coming back," Vickers said.
     More than that even: "I questioned if I wanted to come back. 
     "Maybe it was time to start a new chapter of my life."
     He was suddenly worried about the emotions he would have to brave in a racing comeback.
     And he says it was a difficult situation to try discussing with his doctors, "because most doctors would tell you they'd rather you did not race cars to begin with."
    So Vickers, after the heart surgery in July, just decided to get away from it all for a while. Travel. 
    "I had an amazing time in Rome. I'd been to Europe a lot, but I hadn't been to Rome -- I fell in love with the city.
    "I have a hard time sitting still; I've got to be active, doing something.  If I sleep in, I get mad because I feel I've wasted the day."
    So a friend gave him a challenge: "See if you can do nothing. Try to accomplish that.
    "It wasn't easy."

     Through all those weeks Vickers did heavy soul-searching.
     "And I realized I couldn't not give it another shot.
     "I felt I had unfinished business. That there was something I'd left on the table.
    "I've always wanted to win a championship...."
     Of course Vickers isn't coming back to the sport with illusions on instant grandeur.
    He's far more pragmatic.
    But he is a good points racer. And Kahne should be a much bigger help in the two-car team effort than Scott Speed was. And Toyota execs are driven to win a championship too. One question, however, is how quickly the latest team reorganization comes together. Ryan Pemberton, who worked with Vickers in the 2009 season, is back on the pit box; but Kahne has brought in his own guys, with veteran Kenny Francis running things.
    Then again Vickers concedes he's "an O C D kind of guy," obsessive-compulsive. So he's trying to guard against wanting to come out of the gate swinging.
    And after the emotional trials of last summer, Vickers wants to try to enjoy life more.
   "Sometimes you lose the moment....." he realizes.
   "So more than anything I truly appreciate living in the moment more than I ever have. 
    "Treat every day as if it is the last."

     What really caused the clots? Perhaps May-Thurner Syndrome, Vickers said, perhaps aggravated by his safety belts.
    "But unfortunately one thing I have learned in the medical field is that no one ever says anything 100 percent...I guess until they declare you dead.  Up until that point, there's always this vague, grey area. Medicine is more art than science.
    "There are a lot of questions that are going to go unanswered."

      So, bottom line:  Death, and life? "I've always been pretty much at peace with the idea -- if it happens, it happens, but until then I'm going to live the life to the fullest," Vickers replied. 
     "But in a lot of ways I just didn't think about it.
    "Now I find myself thinking about it more -- but in a positive way, not in a bad way. Just making the most of every day, and trying to enjoy life."


   Yep, everything still fits, and Brian Vickers still knows where all the switches and buttons are (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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