- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CONCORD, N.C. -- In a sense, the climb to Nextel Cup racing isn't all that different from the stages of life.
When a rookie driver ascends to the Cup level, it's like the passage from infancy to young adulthood. In both instances, you have to learn to walk before you can run -- but when you get up to speed, it's time to take off at full speed.
Such is the case with Brian Vickers. The success he enjoyed en route to last year's Busch Series championship is a distant memory. Now he is learning to deal with the present reality: Nextel Cup competition is fierce, and success is tough to find.
"It's definitely tough," Vickers said. "That's what the rookie season is for is to learn and grow."
But as the Five Man Electrical Band sang back in the early 70s, when it comes to Vickers' development into a steady performer and quality Cup competitor, there are "Signs, signs, everywhere a sign" of promise of late for the driver of the No. 25 Chevrolet.
Yet, the 20-year-old Vickers harkens back to another song popular in his parents' era: his slow start and recent surge is more akin to Dan Fogelberg's "Part of the Plan."
"I think it's everybody," Vickers said. "I've learned a lot obviously, and the team has learned a lot. More importantly, we've learned how to work together. It's not that we weren't working together at the beginning of the season; there weren't any kind of disputes going on or anything. But it took me a while to really build that chemistry with that team in the Busch Series last year. I personally like to build it solidly and patiently. I like to build it for the long run, to go win championships, instead of pushing it too quickly and maybe run good at the beginning and then fall off at the end.
"Just like last year, it's taken us a little while to really get going and for Peter (crew chief Peter Sospenzo) and the team to really learn and understand what I need and to trust me in knowing what I need. It's the same for me. I need to know what they need from me and what they need to hear from me. We just keep continuing to build that chemistry. As time goes by, it's only going to get better.
"And it has gotten better -- we got our first pole and our first top-10 (finished eighth at Richmond on May 15), and we've been running fairly consistently lately. We're all happy about that and now we're just going to try to move to the next step. We're going to try to get our first top-five and continue to do that. And then as time goes by, it'll just keep getting better."
As the Nextel Cup season begins its middle third in this Sunday's MBNA 400 "A Salute To Heroes" race at Dover, Del., the contrast in Vickers from the first six races of the season to the most recent six races has been fairly dramatic.
He started with a 39th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 after being caught up in a crash. From there, he impressed with a 16th-place showing at Rockingham, only to follow that up with three finishes from 20th to 29th, and a 35th-place effort -- again, due to a crash -- at Bristol.
But in the last six races, there's no question that the end results have shown Vickers to be more comfortable and more confident behind the wheel. He put together back-to-back efforts of 12th and 13th at Texas and Martinsville, struggled at Talladega (27th) and California (29th), but has since rebounded with stellar efforts at Richmond and this past Sunday's 15th-place showing in the season's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
And as one would expect, Vickers has steadily climbed upward in the standings. He ranked 39th following Daytona; in the last three races alone he's gained five positions for a season-high standing of 22nd heading into Sunday's race at Dover.
Given that Dover has been a place that has been good to Vickers in previous racing efforts, including a win last season there in the Busch Series, and the fact that Vickers is just four points behind Greg Biffle and 15 points shy of No. 20 Ward Burton (and 36 points behind No. 19 Robby Gordon), it's not out of the realm of possibility that a strong finish Sunday could see Vickers crack the top-20 for the first time.
"Absolutely," Vickers said. "I've always enjoyed racing at Dover. I've had a lot of fun there. It's a mix between some of my other favorite racetracks like Bristol, except just a little bit faster. The racing is good and it can turn into a multi-groove racetrack, especially in the Cup race. And it's really fast. That's what I like about it … and that we've won there."
Not only does Vickers have the full support of the Rick Hendrick Motorsports operation behind him, he also has an all-star lineup of teammates, including four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon and two-time champ Terry Labonte, as well as Sunday's winner Jimmie Johnson to receive advice from.
"I've got great teammates to help me and give me some good advice," Vickers concedes. "Jeff (Gordon) and I have talked quite a bit, and Jimmie as well, about so many things. Any time I go to a new racetrack I talk to those guys. The only ones left are Indianapolis and the road courses. I haven't tested or raced there. I talk to those guys about that stuff. Even every racetrack that we go back to that I have been to, I'll ask what the track is going to do from Saturday to Sunday.
"(The track) actually changes from Saturday to Sunday. It changes with more laps and rubber on the racetrack. They also help me a lot with what happens off the racetrack and how to handle and cope with everything."
Perhaps the biggest strength Vickers has carried over with him from the Busch to Nextel Cup series is his down-to-earth approach to racing. He knows he'll have to pay dues to become a great Cup driver, and that time is his biggest ally in achieving that goal. For now, he just takes things as they come, both the difficulties and successes.
"I didn't anticipate (the rookie season) to be extremely difficult," he said. "It's still racing. You get a green flag and you're looking for the checkered. The competition is stronger, but a lot of people over-exaggerate the car situation. They talk about how different a Cup car is to a Busch car, but I don't really see a lot of that. I didn't see a lot of that last year when I was going back and forth between the two series. It's still a race car."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
Brian Vickers didn't fly out of the gate as a Nextel Cup rookie. But he's been picking up speed lately.