- The Washington Times - Monday, September 14, 2009

RICHMOND | Few drivers willingly leave Hendrick Motorsports, the powerhouse race team that runs up front and challenges for championships on an annual basis.

Brian Vickers did - in one of the most surprising recent career decisions in NASCAR.

He walked away from a dream job at the end of 2006 to take a chance on a brand-new race team. All Red Bull Racing really had to offer was a concept - they had spend endlessly to build an energetic organization with Vickers as the star - and he jumped at the opportunity.

Just three topsy-turvy seasons into his Red Bull venture, Vickers proved his decision was the right one for him. He used a steady 11-race push to grab the final spot in the Chase for the championship with a strong Saturday night run at Richmond International Raceway.

Vickers’ had just one top-10 finish in 10 previous Richmond starts but stepped up to finish seventh and steal the spot earmarked for either Kyle Busch or Matt Kenseth.

“We picked one heck of a night to have a great car,” he said.

But it’s about so much more than one night for Vickers or Red Bull Racing.

There was the disastrous 2007 debut, when management tried but failed to model the race team after its Formula One organization. The same practices don’t apply in NASCAR, evident when Vickers missed 13 races and finished 38th in the standings.

So there was a total overhaul that offseason. Red Bull brought in general manager Jay Frye to restructure the organization. Frye wasted no time in fixing the structure and the systems, and Vickers’ No. 83 team showed considerable improvement by qualifying for every race and jumping up to 19th in the final standings.

It set the groundwork for this breakthrough third season, which was marked by Vickers giving Red Bull its first victory last month at Michigan and now a berth in the Chase.

“Our goals for the year were to win a race, win a pole and get into the Chase,” Frye said Saturday night. “So we’ve got that. For a company that is only two-and-a-half years old, it’s pretty phenomenal. When Red Bull came into this sport in 2007, they came in a big way. Their expectations were high. We’re very fortunate that they give us the opportunity to do what we do.

“We’re paying them back a little bit.”

This march into the Chase was not without obstacles, though.

There was a summer search for a new manufacturer as Red Bull weighed continuing on with Toyota against aligning with Hendrick and a move to Chevrolet. Vickers’ talks on a contract extension were supposed to lead to a new deal in June, but the negotiating dragged into August and wasn’t completed until two days after his Michigan victory.

Then there was a flap at Michigan with Busch, and the fallout followed Vickers more than he probably realized. Critical of Busch’s typical negative reaction to a loss, Vickers pitied his one-time teammate for being “so angry” about something “so small.”

But because winning is not small at all, Vickers wound up questioned about both his commitment and passion.

He seemed bewildered about the fallout Saturday night, when his performance spoke for itself and proved there’s no doubting Vickers’ desire.

“As far as the level of commitment, I give 100 percent,” he said. “My personality is different than [Busch’s] like his is different than Jeff Gordon’s. We all give 100 percent, maybe in a different way.”

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