October 30, 2011
There are days as a driver when you're just flat-out snakebit, when every turn seems to be half the width of your car and every other driver is chopping into your lane from every angle. You hit walls, you trade paint, you count yourself lucky if your car is facing the right direction for more than half the race.
But taking yourself out of the race with a terrible performance is one thing. When your spins and collisions start affecting the outcome not just of the race but possibly of the season itself, well, suddenly it's not quite so funny.
The opening 100 laps of the Tums 500 were some of the most absurd in recent memory, with nearly half a dozen cautions slowing the speed at already-slow Martinsville to elementary-school-speed-limit territory. And almost all of those cautions originated or involved one car: the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota of Brian Vickers.
It was a strange sight; Vickers isn't usually one of the more wreck-happy drivers in NASCAR, and here he was, running afoul of driver after driver. There were 18 cautions in this race, and NASCAR stats showed Vickers involved in five of them. And at least two drivers attempted payback against Vickers, with one, Matt Kenseth, potentially altering his Cup chances as a result.
Kenseth and Vickers spent much of the last few laps of the race battling for position, and the fact that Vickers was on the lead lap was impressive enough in itself. But after too many attempts to clear Vickers fell short, Kenseth ran out of patience.
"He just kept hitting me in the door," Kenseth said afterward. "We're at Martinsville and I kept giving him the bottom. Obviously, I'm not going to roll over and let him go with 40 (laps) to go, or whatever it was. He just kept driving in harder and harder. He slammed me in the door at least five times and ran me up into the marbles, and I was just tired of it. So I just spun him out."
Vickers would retaliate with about five laps remaining, but by then Kenseth was already out of the picture for the race and, in all likelihood, the Chase itself, the victim of a cut tire that sent him back in the pack. Question is, did Vickers need to retaliate at all when he clearly was having problems all day long?
While we can't blame Vickers for Kenseth's troubles, it's clear that Vickers had no compunctions whatsoever about giving any ground to a championship competitor. This has been a topic of conversation for the last few Chases; should non-Chasers give ground to the championship contenders? Where you stand on the issue probably depends in part on whether your driver is in the hunt for the Cup or not, but this much is clear: Vickers helped make an awful day for Kenseth that much worse.
More significantly, however, Vickers' actions almost certainly cost Jimmie Johnson the race. Johnson was leading the race by a large margin when Vickers, attempting his retribution, brought out the final caution of the race. Shortly afterward, Tony Stewart was able to slip past Johnson for the win.
During the race, Knaus was furious at Vickers, and afterward in a postrace interview, Johnson spoke calmly but was clearly displeased at the fact that Vickers continued to battle even after having caused so many wrecks.
"After a fourth, fifth time with the same car in the crash, you start thinking about maybe you're the problem," Johnson said. "Something is going on. You're having a bad day. You need to stop crashing for whatever reason."
Vickers did not comment publicly after the race.
"Forty-three cars started this race," ESPN analyst Ricky Craven said afterward, "and I think Brian Vickers hit half of them." He could laugh about it, as could anybody outside Martinsville, but it'll be a long time before anyone inside the garage forgets what happened Sunday afternoon.
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