- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Red Bull Racing driver Brian Vickers announced Saturday he has been medically cleared to return to the Sprint Cup series next season.
Vickers said in late May that he would take the rest of this season off after blood clots were discovered in his left leg and lungs. Since then, a clot also was discovered in a finger in his left hand.
That led to extensive tests that determined he had a hole between the right and left atrium in his heart, as well as May-Thurner Syndrone, a rare condition that puts a patient at risk of more blood clots and possible stroke.
Vickers said he had heart surgery to repair the hole July 12. A stent was placed in a vein in his left leg a day later.
The 26-year-old Vickers said his choices were to undergo the heart surgery, or "not to close it and run the risk of having a stroke.
"I would rather die than have a stroke," he said. "I don't wan to run the risk of living like a vegetable."
The driver of the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota said he will be off blood thinners prescribed for the clots by early- to mid-January and ready to return to NASCAR's premier series in time for the February Daytona 500.
"[Doctors] gave me full clearance for next year," Vickers said from the media center at Bristol Motor Speedway. "I will be back in January. I'm real excited about that. They feel I'm probably in the best shape of my life."
"We are very optimistic about his return, but there's still a ways to go in this process,'' Red Bull Racing general manager Jay Frye said. "We're very excited and happy for Brian. We continue to monitor his situation.''
Red Bull recently announced that Kasey Kahne would drive one of its cars in 2011 as a stopgap before his contract with Hendrick Motorsports begins.
Frye said at the time Kahne would drive either the 83, replace Scott Speed in the No. 82 or a third car would be added.
Speed has one year left on his contract, but sources said there is an out if the driver ranks 16th or higher in points after this season. Speed currently is 27th.
Speed told ESPN.com that there is more to the contract beyond the clause that could keep him in the No. 82.
Frye said the organization continues to monitor Vickers' health and Speed's performance. Speed said he's "really happy" for Vickers.
"He has gone through a lot and handled everything he was dealt very well," Speed added.
Vickers, complaining of chest pains, entered a Washington, D.C., hospital in early May before the Dover race, when it was discovered several clots had developed in his veins and in or around his lungs.
Vickers was immediately put on high dosages of medication to thin his blood and break up the clots. When it became apparent he would not be able to drive at Dover, Vickers was replaced by Casey Mears.
A few weeks later, Vickers held a news conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway to announce he would be out for the remainder of the season with deep vein thrombosis with a pulmonary embolism.
Vickers said that although NASCAR hasn't given him clearance to return, he can't imagine not getting it since he is in better shape now than before the clots were discovered.
"I feel like I've gained some edge," he said. "Sometimes you get so busy and caught up in life that you lose appreciation for what's around you, you lose drive, a lot of things. This has given me an opportunity to step back and take a look inwards, a look at what's around me and a look inside you.
"Sometimes you don't find out how much you really love something until you don't have it."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
NASCAR driver Brian Vickers says he had heart surgery last month as part of his treatment for blood clots.