Part-time Michael Waltrip Racing driver Brian Vickers came through an attrition-marred race at New Hampshire Sunday to take the checkered flag for only the third time in his Cup career and first win in 75 races.
Vickers, whose trials are well documented, beginning with a medical condition that forced him from racing in 2010, was somewhat of a surprise challenger near the race’s end.
But the Waltrip stable, of which Vickers is a part, is showing a surprising strength in Cup competition this year. Vickers’ win comes on the heels of a fifth-place finish for team owner Michael Waltrip last week in Daytona and follows a victory from one of the team’s other drivers, Martin Truex Jr., last month in Sonoma.
Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski quickly abdicated the lead spot to Kyle Busch shortly after the drop of the green flag. Busch paced the field in the early going before yielding to older brother Kurt, who took the race by the neck and seemed to be the strength of the field.
But on Lap 225 of the 301-lap tour of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Busch met his demise on the low side of a three-way dive for Turn 1, perhaps slightly aided by Matt Kenseth’s front bumper. Busch slid up into Ryan Newman, taking both out. In quick fashion, the pace-setting driver of the 78 car was done for the day.
Tony Stewart seemed to benefit most from the misfortune that stalked the field through 11 cautions over the first 258 laps, the No. 14 car going out of sequence and off strategy to move through the field from his 16th-place start.
Tensions increased as the laps decreased, with the number of yellows indicative of the wrecks, spinouts, and delays throughout the cast. Kyle Busch, told by his crew chief that the race would come back to him when the late afternoon cloud cover returned, was suddenly right behind Stewart with 25 laps to go. Latecomer Vickers, though, passed the No. 18 of Busch with 19 laps remaining, and soon trailed Stewart by less than a second. No one knew what fuel Stewart had left, as Vickers pulled up behind the No. 14, eventually passing him with 14 laps remaining.
There was closing drama, however. With five laps to go, the race’s 12th caution came out for a questionable piece of debris. It was the last thing Stewart — on fumes — wanted to see. True to his deepest fears, Stewart slowed just before the white-flag lap and Vickers chugged home with his well-earned victory.
Jimmie Johnson, with a sixth-place finish at New Hampshire, stretches his championship points lead over Clint Bowyer to 56. The Sprint Cup field takes a breather next week before heading to The Brickyard for one of the sport’s four crown jewels.
I’m never sure NASCAR knows when to leave well enough alone. With intermittent driver Brian Vickers leading the Camping World RV Sales 301 with five laps to go, the 12th caution — yes, a dozen yellow flags flew Sunday — came out for debris on the track, in this case a smallish piece of what looked like hard rubber.
It in no way looked threatening to any of the 3,500-pound vehicles mashing the track, but one wonders what constitutes a dangerous piece of debris. At the same time, onlookers were wondering if Stewart would last the race with enough gas and if Vickers could beat the big guys.
Earlier, a questionable piece of rubber debris that was high on the track, but off line brought out the caution. By contrast, in Sunday’s IndyCar race at Toronto, a section of some car’s front wing assembly rested just off the racing line at about the same placement as the miniscule debris found early on in the NASCAR race.
Difference was, they raced on at the IndyCar race.
IndyCar’s second “double-header of the season — the first weekend double was successfully run at Detroit last month — proved to be a treasure trove for Team Target Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, who swept the back-to-back weekend series to add to his victory at Pocono last week: Three series victories in eight days. Can you say hot streak?
Dixon was indomitable.
Not only did he overtake a hot-running Sebastian Bourdais Saturday for the first victory, but so total was his rule on Sunday that, with 24 laps left in what had been a caution-free race to that point, Dixon had built a jaw-dropping 15-second lead.
Though the race couldn’t escape carnage, Dixon never was challenged. As a result of his prodigious three-race run, the New Zealander moves up to second place in the points championship behind Helio Castroneves.
Read Alan Ross’ article on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013 in Lindy’s Sports 2013 Pro Football Preview at newsstands everywhere.