SONOMA, Calif. — After doing all the right things on a sunny Sunday at Sonoma, Kurt Busch can take an object lesson from the driver who finished right behind him in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
That driver is Brian Vickers, who six months ago was radioactive, unemployable, a laughingstock to a prospective sponsor.
Within an extremely small window of opportunity, Vickers has achieved a remarkable transformation. The driver who sullied his own reputation by waging war on championship contender Matt Kenseth last fall at Martinsville now has an opportunity to regain a firm foothold in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.
Vickers can thank Michael Waltrip for a second chance. When Waltrip hired Mark Martin to drive the No. 55 Toyota in 25 races this season, he needed a fill-in driver for six races. Vickers, who lost his ride when owner Dietrich Mateschitz pulled the plug on Red Bull Racing’s NASCAR effort last year, signed on for six of the races Martin chose not to run — two each at Bristol, Martinsville and New Hampshire.
Vickers’ rebound started with performance. In his debut for Michael Waltrip Racing at Bristol in March, he led 125 laps and finished fifth. Subsequently, Waltrip added the road course races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen to Vickers’ schedule.
Vickers made the most of his opportunity on Sunday, shucking off a pit road speeding penalty to finish fourth behind race winner Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart and Busch.
After the race, Waltrip waxed enthusiastic about Vickers’ prospects.
“We structured MWR and built our building and Toyota believes in the fact that we could have four teams one day,” said Waltrip, who fields cars for Martin, Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. “Certainly is a possibility to add Brian to our driver lineup with a fourth team, or even have him hang around another year, and if Mark ever gets done driving . . . ”
Vickers is a talented driver, but that’s quite a leap of faith for a car owner, considering that Vickers was all but untouchable at the end of the year. Waltrip explained.
“If you think of somebody’s attitude that is 180 degrees different,” Waltrip said, “he struggled years ago getting tangled up with folks, and he started the season saying, ‘I’m not that guy — I know how to drive these race cars, and I’m going to prove it.’
“He’s been amazing for our organization.”
That should be an object lesson there for the embattled Busch, who came tenuously close to chucking his career when he violated probation earned at Darlington in May during a thoughtless, sarcastic confrontation with a reporter at Dover in June.
But Busch created his own window of opportunity for redemption at Sonoma — not simply by running third, but by the way he ran third. Busch took an underfunded car to the front of the field, and with victory there for the taking, resisted the temptation to move Bowyer out of the way in the closing laps.
Busch hounded Bowyer lap after lap until he brushed a stack of tires on the inside of Turn 11 and broke the panhard bar on his No. 51 Chevrolet. Nonetheless, Busch manhandled the car to a third-place finish.
After the race, Busch paid a visit to Bowyer in Victory Lane and congratulated him on the win. He choked up in the media center during his post-race interviews. Busch earned considerable good will for the way he drove the race and for the way he handled defeat after coming so tantalizingly close to victory.
If Vickers is a talented driver with two Cup wins, one trip to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and considerable potential yet to be realized, Busch is an elite talent with 24 victories, six Chases made and one Cup championship. His unquestioned skills already have afforded him plenty of second chances.
Phoenix Racing owner James Finch decided to stand by his driver despite a suspension for the Dover incident that sidelined Busch for the Cup race at Pocono. Crew chief Nick Harrison is solidly behind him, as is sponsor Tag Heuer, which is on the No. 51 for a limited number of races that did not include Sonoma.
On one previous occasion this year, Busch emptied a reservoir of good will with nothing to show for it. In a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Richmond in late April, he did what few other drivers could have done, holding off Denny Hamlin, who had a faster car in the closing stages of the race, in a photo finish for the win. The victory was the first as a Nationwide owner for Kurt’s brother Kyle Busch, leading to a touching display of camaraderie after the race.
A week later, Busch adopted the Ricky Bobby persona from the film “Talladega Nights” for the Cup race at Talladega and tossed out lines from the movie as he drove. That’s what got the attention of producers of the “Jerry Springer Show,” who approached Finch about a sponsorship opportunity.
Ultimately, the Springer feelers failed to materialize (perhaps the show got the publicity boost it needed when the story of a possible deal broke), and Busch lost the opportunity to build on his successes with the incident at Dover.
After Sonoma, he has yet another chance, if he can only bury the ghosts of the past and — like Vickers — say with finality, “I’m not that guy.”
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author