LAS VEGAS – How's this for dodging a bullet:
Three laps into the first Gatorade Duel at Daytona, Brian Vickers spun out. As he dove down toward the infield, several cars nearly clipped him. If they had, Vickers, who's one of those without a guaranteed spot on Sundays, would have missed the Daytona 500, which would have meant missing last week's race in California, too, all of which would have cast a cloud over him and his team heading into this Sunday's UAW-Dodge 400.
But nobody hit Vickers in that Duel, which changed the complexion of Team Red Bull's entire season.
Able to recover from the spin, Vickers finished high enough to qualify for the Daytona 500, where he wound up a respectable 12th. As it turned out, that finish earned him a spot in last weekend's Auto Club 500. Because when qualifying was rained out, the field was set by owner's points, and Vickers, by virtue of his finish at Daytona, was the highest of the go-or-homers.
Had he gotten hit or backed his car into the wall, Vickers would have missed both races, which, like a row of dominos, set off a negative chain reaction of events exactly like the ones that plagued Red Bull throughout 2007.
But he didn't hit, and instead Vickers and Red Bull come into this weekend's race 11th in the Sprint Cup standings.
"I call it almost a defining moment in the company," said Jay Frye, general manager of Red Bull Racing. "If Brian in the Duel would have backed into the wall or gotten hit or run over, then both cars miss the Daytona 500" – A.J. Allmendinger was the first car not to qualify for the Daytona 500 – "and then all the negative stuff from last year starts coming back. So far, we've been able to say, 'Okay, that was last year. This is this year.' "
As a rookie team with a rookie manufacturer (Toyota) in 2007, Red Bull struggled mightily. Between them, Vickers and Allmendinger only qualified for 40 of a combined 72 races.
That kind of inconsistency kept the team guessing, never allowing them to get into any sort of rhythm. They'd get to a track just hoping to get into the race, and when they didn't they'd leave more confused than when they arrived.
"It definitely eats away at you," said Vickers, who will start 43rd for Sunday's UAW-Dodge 400. "When you're behind the wheel and you miss a race, you have to question whether you did everything you could. You're a part of that puzzle."
And a year ago, the pieces were scattered all over the table. It's not that Red Bull didn't know how to put them together. It's just that while the rest of the Cup garage was putting the finishing touches on their puzzle, Red Bull was still working on the corners.
But just like with anything, time makes for change.
Since Daytona last year, Red Bull has brought in Frye, who facilitated the merger between Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Ginn Racing, gained a year of experience racing at the Cup level, and through the early success of Joe Gibbs Racing seen that Toyotas can compete with the top dogs.
"Where Gibbs helps is last year there were a lot of questions with the cars, with the motors. There were a lot of questions about the program," explained Frye. "Well, they've validated the program.
"If Gibbs is getting it done, we can get it done. There are no excuses now."
"We're a world apart from last year," said Guenther Steiner, Red Bull's technical director. "We're still behind the really good teams – Hendrick, Gibbs, Evernham, Roush. We have a ways to go. But we made some big gains from last year."
And there's no better example than Daytona 2007 vs. Daytona 2008. A year ago, Vickers didn't qualify for the Daytona 500 when a cut tire sent him into the wall during his qualifying race. During this year's Daytona 500, Vickers felt something amiss in his car. Instead of staying out, he came down pit road to get new tires, and though he went a lap down, he was able to rally to finish 12th, just like he was able to rally from that spin in the Duel just to get into the 500.
"The team needed an injection of something good to happen, and when that happened, that was huge," said Frye. "How you overcome adversity and how you react to certain situations can define how you do for the rest of the season."