- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Brian Vickers was walking through the Sprint Cup garage at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 16 when he noticed a familiar face surrounded by autograph-seeking fans.
He pointed a finger and smiled.
The familiar face pointed back.
Vickers eventually made his way through the fans, exchanged a handshake, hug and a brief conversation, then continued on his path to the Nationwide Series garage.
"Sometimes people have to get away for both sides to realize what could have been," said the familiar face, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick. "At the time, nobody sees it. You know something is not really right and you can't really make it right."
That's the way it was for Vickers and Hendrick in 2006 when Vickers made the decision to leave HMS at the end of the season for upstart Team Red Bull and upstart manufacturer Toyota.
Many thought Vickers was crazy to leave arguably NASCAR's top organization for one that built its reputation in Formula One. The critics were out in full force after last season when the former Nationwide Series champion made only 23 of 36 races and finished 38th in points.
Even Hendrick had trouble understanding the move, which caused a few months of friction in their relationship, which was closer than that of most drivers and owners because of the bond they shared with Hendrick's late son, Ricky.
That friction is gone. The smile on Vickers' face said more than his position in the point standings -- 15th and only 166 points out of the championship Chase with three races left before the 12-driver field is set.
"He's always had a great talent," Hendrick said.
Only that talent was buried at Hendrick. Vickers understood he never was going to be anything more than the fourth driver behind Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch before Busch left this season for Joe Gibbs Racing.
I made the decision to leave Hendrick based on what was or was not taking place from a business and personal reason. A lot of emotions were there. It was hard to focus sometimes.
-- Brian Vickers
He knows were he in the same position in points at HMS, he'd still be an afterthought because all the attention would be on Gordon, Johnson and new teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"It only makes business sense," Vickers said. "The focus is going to be on what's best for the organization. A lot of times, that's going to be which team brings in the most money, which team has the most potential, which team is winning races.
"Competing for that attention with that caliber of driver and that caliber of teams -- championship-winning teams that bring a lot of money to the organization, a lot of talent -- that's tough to compete with."
So Vickers left, not only because of the need to be the top guy at an organization instead of a face in the crowd but also to get away from the emotion that drained his team after Ricky was killed on a 2004 flight to Martinsville, Va.
And now, with his team competing for wins and a spot in the playoff heading into Saturday night's race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Vickers is feeling better about the decision.
Further proof that his career is heading in the right direction is his disappointment with last week's seventh-place finish at Michigan after earning the pole. This was his sixth top-10 of the season, which moved him up two spots in the standings, 24 spots better than this time a year ago, when he had only one top-10 all season.
"But running well or not at Red Bull really doesn't change the decision to leave Hendrick," Vickers said. "I made the decision to leave Hendrick based on what was or was not taking place from a business and personal reason. A lot of emotions were there. It was hard to focus sometimes.
"I had to get away from everything and start fresh."
"Casey is a talented driver and a high-character person who is going to be a great fit with our organization. He has the ability to win races and ultimately contend for championships, so we're thrilled to welcome him to Hendrick Motorsports."
Those were Hendrick's words when he signed Casey Mears to replace Vickers in 2007.
Vickers believes his former boss meant them at the time. Hendrick said similar things about him when he was signed in 2003 to replace Ricky in the No. 5 Nationwide car.
So Vickers understands the frustration Mears must feel at being forced to take a new ride at Richard Childress Racing because Hendrick opted to replace him with Mark Martin next season.
"It's a tough role," Vickers said of being the fourth driver at HMS. "Casey is a good driver. I don't feel like he got the shot that he should have for whatever reason."
Vickers recounted how Mears was just starting to build a relationship with his team in 2007 when Hendrick tore that apart to put most of the crew members with Earnhardt this season.
"He was only given six months to figure it out, maybe five, before they decided to go in a different direction in 2009," Vickers said. "Maybe that was because of sponsors. I don't know.
"I feel for Casey. Was it a fair shakedown? No. I don't think so. It takes years to know a crew chief and mesh and learn how to work together."
That makes what Vickers has accomplished this season even more impressive. This is his first season with Kevin Hamlin, who was hired in the offseason to replace Doug Richert as crew chief.
Eight wins and the points lead aside, people might be talking about their relationship instead of that of Kyle Busch and Steve Addington.
"Sometimes it's about putting the right people in the right places," Vickers said. "Kevin wasn't as successful last year [with Dave Blaney at Bill Davis Racing], and I wasn't successful with the team I was with. Then you put us together and we're more successful.
"A lot of it is chemistry."
With a little luck, that chemistry would have Vickers in the top 12. He was leading at Charlotte in May when the tire fell off. He blew an engine in the midst of a solid run at Indianapolis and ran out of gas a few weeks ago at Pocono.
A solid run in the first Bristol race also was killed by engine woes.
Despite those setbacks, Vickers has the best average finish (18.3) of his career.
"Where you really see the difference is consistency," he said. "Where I see the difference is we've had a bunch of races, knock on wood, where we were contending at least for a top 15 or 10.
"Last year, there were times where we legitimately ran 35th all day. The whole weekend, we were junk. Even if we made the race, we were still horrible. We've had very few of those days this year."
Kurt Busch went from 27th in the standings in 2001 to third the next season, so he knows a lot about turnarounds.
Vickers' hasn't gone unnoticed.
"I would give them a definite award for most improved," said Busch, the 2004 Cup champion. "Sometimes getting the most improved award is a double-edged sword. That means you were doing something wrong before.
"Now they're starting to come into their own. Since May of this year, they've really turned it up."
Vickers has finished 18th or better nine times in the past 11 races. He's been 13th or better seven times and had four top-10s.
"I have to give Brian a lot of credit," Johnson said. "Brian is the one that really felt like he needed to make a change and felt like this Red Bull option was the change he needed to make.
"Brian, through this experience, has done a lot of growing and has matured a lot on and off the track. He's running extremely well each week."
"He's a smart driver," Hamlin said. "He wants to know a lot about what's going on in the car. He pays attention to what's going on. He tries to give me all the feedback that is essential to make the car run better.
"Hanging out with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, that couldn't be a bad thing either. They had to teach him several good habits. I think they helped ramp his learning curve on and off the track."
General manager Jay Frye ramped up the learning curve for the entire organization. He's a big reason Vickers is contending for a Chase spot and second-year driver AJ Allmendinger is in the top 35.
"There's two factors why Jay made such a big difference," Vickers said. "He personally was the right man for the job. He's a great leader. He's got great experience. He's very motivational.
"But when you step back and look at the role itself, no matter who you plug into that role, he was going to have a huge impact. Jay is why that impact was positive."
Frye, who has 16 years of NASCAR experience, was hired in January to replace Guenther Steiner, whose experience was all in Formula One. He brought in more than a dozen people who have improved the overall performance of the organization.
"There are a lot of good people at the shop this year, and there were a lot of good people last year," Vickers said. "But the difference is that they all make a difference. Every single one of them contributes a tremendous amount."
You could hear the pride in Hendrick's voice as he talked about Vickers just out of earshot of the autograph seekers.
"He's a good, good kid," he said. "He got kind of impatient with some of the things where he was headed with us. He had a chance to be the top dog instead of one of the guys that had to come in behind a Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, and he took it.
"But we still maintain the relationship we had through the whole deal. He calls the house and talks to [Hendrick's wife] Linda. He comes by to see us. That part is still there."
It wasn't initially. Vickers and Hendrick barely talked for three or four months after the separation.
"We definitely went through a rough spot," Vickers said. "It was probably rougher than you typically go through when an owner and driver separate. There were a lot of personal emotions there."
Most of those revolved around the death of Ricky. Both agree now that those emotions hurt their business relationship and at times made it tough to have productive meetings.
When Vickers told Hendrick he was leaving for Red Bull, it was almost as painful as telling his father he was moving out of the house.
"My dad was pissed," he recalled. "Mom was mad at me. Immediately, it's, 'You don't ever come back.' That's just part of the growing pains, of moving on."
"The tough thing with Rick is that you become friends when you drive for him," he said. "When the business side doesn't work out, it's hard to separate business and personal feelings and emotions. It's almost like a breakup of sorts."
But like the kid experiencing a whole new world, Vickers has learned and grown a lot since leaving HMS. He's more comfortable with who he is than ever before.
"It was the hardest decision I've ever had to make, but it was one that was the right decision," said Vickers, who spends about half of his time in New York City these days. "I think [Rick] feels the same way. We both learned a lot from it."
And who knows. One day, they might be back together.
Only this time, Vickers hopefully would be more than the fourth driver.
"This thing is a big circle," Hendrick said. "You never know when you might hook up again."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.