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Toyota's Brian Vickers plays it perfectly in beating Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Michigan

   Brian Vickers celebrates his second NASCAR tour victory with Ryan Pemberton and the crew (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   BROOKLYN, Mich.
   Brian Vickers – not only did he finally crack back into the winner's circle Sunday afternoon, but he pulled within 12 points of making the NASCAR championship playoff cut, with three races to go till the title chase begins.
   So Sunday's victory in the Michigan 400 was perhaps just the breakthrough the Thomasville, N.C., racer has been looking for ever since that first tour win, and all that controversy, at Talladega three years ago.
   Ironically – and Jimmie Johnson made note of it, after losing Sunday's run by running out of gas with five miles to go – Vickers beat Johnson at Talladega that afternoon.
    This 400 was another gas mileage race to the finish, and Vickers saved enough gas to make it to the finish line and enough for part of a victory burnout, but then he ran dry before he could wheel Ryan Pemberton's Toyota to victory circle.
    "It's been a good weekend for us," the polished Vickers said after the win in the three-hour race before a crowd NASCAR listed at 103,000.
   "It's been a long time coming, a long three years, but nobody gave up.
   "He hasn't run me out of fuel yet. If he says I need to give him two laps, I give him two laps. If he says I need to give him four, I give him four.
   "We've hit the mark every time.
   "But when it comes to two-to-go, I'm still sweating bullets.
   "When I saw Jimmie run out, I was think I could run out too in any second.
   "Now hopefully we can get in the chase and make a run at the championship.
   "I just want to thank all the fans for coming out, because we know the economy is rough, particular around here."
   Crew chief Ryan Pemberton took the win in stride: "It was a good race for us, not a great race.
   "Last time here I didn't know how good he was at saving fuel…but I found out. And he's good. He did it probably to the half-gallon. It was cool to put that pressure on him, and watch him make it pay off."
   Jay Frye, the general manager, was breathing a sigh of relief.
   "The team has obviously come a long way….but Brian has had some questions about what direction the team was going…so we brought Ryan in last fall," Frye said.
   "Now we're only 12 points out of the chase. Two of our goals this year were to win a race and make the chase.
   "Today was more of a relief…because we've come so close so many times.
   "Now we've shown we know how to win."
      Vickers gained a lot of points in the chase to the playoffs:  "When you're just battling one guy for points, it's easy to pick up 100 points in a day. But when you're battling half a dozen guys for points, it's hard to make any big gains."
   So making a 100-point jump like Vickers did was in part because of the problems others had – leader Tony Stewart, Johnson, Kurt Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman all had mediocre or downright bad runs.
    With three races to go till the cut, Martin is now 12th (after running out of gas the last lap and finishing 31st), just 12 points ahead of Vickers.
   And it may be ironic that Vickers won the day after his sharp-edged battle – and brief post-race run-in – with Kyle Busch. The two were battling the last lap to win Saturday's Nationwide race, and lost track of Brad Keselowski's last lap charge. Busch took exception to Vickers' racing him so hard down the stretch, and the exchanged words.
   Vickers, who exudes a Jimmie Johnson cool, in sharp contrast to the heat that Busch tends to show, called Busch's antics Saturday "ridiculous…unnecessary."
   "There are some people you meet in life who are going to do stupid things," Vickers said. "And you just learn to accept it, and don't let it bother you.
   "You have patience, you live your life, you run your race. Brad won, and I finished second, and I left it at that.
   "In a lot of ways I feel sorry for Kyle, that he lives so angry, about something so small. I hope he can get past it. I don't have any hard feelings.
   "Today was a different race, a new day, and I just want to focus on my life, and I could care less about yesterday. Life is too short to worry about things like that."

   For Vickers and Frye, hanging over this win is the question of Vickers' contract. His current deal with Team Red Bull ends at the end of the season, and he's been negotiating a new contract. However the negotiations appear to be going much too slowly, with team owner Dietrich Mateschitz, who lives in Austria, not yet giving his final okay.
   Maybe now….
   "Relief isn't the word to describe it," Vickers said of this win. "It's like a big weight lifted off my shoulders.
  "We've had six poles already this year…and now to finally get this win…
   "As far as the contract situation, sitting on the pole and winning the race can't hurt. So hopefully we can get everything squared away."
   The ball may be in Frye's camp, or at least his side of the table.
   "We have every intention of getting this done and getting it done very quickly," Frye said. "Today things are complicated; maybe we overcomplicate things.
   "But we have every intention of redoing this. We certainly don't want Brian going anywhere. We want him right where he's at."




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