Vickers says team morale remains high

Originally Published: June 2, 2005
Associated Press

DOVER, Del. – It's been a pretty disappointing year so far for Hendrick Motorsports' youngest drivers, Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch.

Both have been hailed as future stars after quick success in the Busch Series – Vickers winning the title in 2003 and Busch finishing second in 2004 – before stepping up to NASCAR's Nextel Cup series.

So far in 2005, though, the 21-year-old Vickers has only two top-10 finishes in the first 12 races and is 27th in the points, while rookie teammate Busch, 20, has three top-10s, including a runner-up finish early in the season at Las Vegas, and is 22nd in points.

The two friends have been paired by the Hendrick team, just as older, more experienced teammates Jimmie Johnson, the current points leader, and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon – fifth in the points – have been put into the same shop.

Brian Vickers

Vickers, 25th last year as a rookie, with four top-10s, said he is not discouraged by the slow start in his sophomore season.

"I'm happy with how things have been progressing lately," Vickers said. "We don't have the results to show it, but I think the Nos. 5 [Busch] and 25 [Vickers] teams have come a long way. And we're just getting started.

"People have overlooked the changes that took place in the offseason. Our team this year is almost brand new compared to 2004. There are new guys in the shop, new guys at the track and Lance [McGrew, crew chief] and I have just started hitting our stride together."

It looked like Vickers might get his first Cup victory last Sunday at Charlotte, but he crashed with 21 laps left in the Coca-Cola 600, taking teammate Gordon with him. Vickers wound up 31st.

The disappointed Vickers is trying to put a positive spin on the experience.

"Our team opened a lot of eyes to the fact that we're capable of winning a race in 2005," he said. "I made a mistake and became impatient late in the race, which cost us a shot a closing the deal. I hate it, but we have to move on and I can learn from that experience.

"What happened on Sunday reminds me a lot of what took place in the Busch Series at Texas in 2003, when we had a dominant car and circumstances prevented us from getting the win. The good part is we came back to win three times in 2003, and I think this team can win in 2005."

Busch, the younger brother of reigning Cup champion Kurt Busch, is just as optimistic.

"I know we've had our ups and downs, but this is a good team and we're learning more about working together and getting the results every week," he said.

Seat time is important for the youngster, so he planned to drive in all three races this weekend at Dover, including Friday night's Craftsman Truck Series event, Saturday's Busch race and Sunday's Cup race.

Alan Gustafson, his crew chief, said the busy weekend could lead to good things.

"Kyle is concerned he hasn't figured Dover out yet, but he's running all three races this weekend," Gustafson said. "By the time he fires the engine on Sunday, he might have an edge on the competition."

Taming the Monster
The concrete oval at Dover International Speedway is known as the Monster Mile, but the track where NASCAR is racing this weekend has been a pussycat for Tony Stewart.

Tony Stewart

Stewart has two wins, nine top-fives and a sixth and a seventh at the Delaware track. His only finish outside the top 10 has been 11th in the spring race in 2002, the year he went on to win the Cup championship.

He has led 1,066 laps at Dover and has completed all but one of the 4,800 laps possible in the past six seasons. Stewart finished a lap down in the 1999 spring race but still finished fourth.

"I like to be aggressive at Dover," Stewart said. "It's one of my better tracks and I feel like we run really, really well there. It's a track where Zippy [crew chief Greg Zipadelli] and I feel like we have a really good package that works pretty well for us. It allows me to be aggressive to where I can go out and lead a lot of laps and put pressure on the leaders when I'm not out front."

Stewart is a solid sixth in the season points and says he isn't concerned that he has yet to win a race this season. Of his 19 career victories, only three have come before June.

"We just haven't been to Victory Lane yet, and that's what everybody's looking at," Stewart said. "But we're not worried about it, especially with the way the points system is now.

"I'm not totally satisfied with it, but I don't think anyone is totally satisfied with the way their season is going. You always want to be better than what you are."

In the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship format, the top 10 drivers and any others within 400 points of the leader after the first 26 races will be eligible to race for the Cup title over the final 10 events.

Heading into Dover, the top 16 drivers in the standings are within 400 points of leader Jimmie Johnson.

Charity ride
Kyle Petty will once again lead about 250 motorcycle riders in the Chick-fil-A Ride Across America. The 11th annual ride will benefit the Victory Junction Gang Camp in Randleman, N.C., which Petty and his family helped establish, as well as several other children's charities.

This year's ride will begin July 23 in Oswego, Ore., the first time it has kicked off in the Pacific Northwest, and will cover 3,750 miles in 10 days before ending at the Victory Junction Gang Camp on July 31.

The group will make overnight stops in Boise, Idaho; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Cody, Wyo.; Deadwood, S.D.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Louisville, Ky., and Knoxville, Tenn.

The charity ride was started by Petty in 1995. The annual trek, featuring NASCAR celebrities, ride sponsors and motorcycle enthusiasts, has logged more than 34,000 miles, included more than 3,800 riders and donated more than $7 million.

Stat of the week
Seven of the last eight Cup races at Dover have been won from a top-10 starting position. Kyle Petty won the 1995 Miller Genuine Draft 500 at Dover International Speedway from 37th, the furthest back a Dover winner has come from in the 36-year history of the track.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press