Brant James
Thursday September 10th, 2009

Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers have taken wildly divergent paths since leaving Hendrick Motorsports -- one on his own volition, one forced out to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Busch, deposed in 2007, has been eminently more successful in yet another stint with one of one of NASCAR's most powerful teams. Vickers, who took a chance on start-up Red Bull Racing in 2006, has won just one Cup race since leaving.

But they enter the Sprint Cup race at Richmond on Saturday night at a crossroads together, both trying to fight their way into the Chase for the Championship and vie for their first Sprint Cup title.

Their feelings about the moment are equally divergent. To one, it's a predicament, to the other, an opportunity. Perspective is everything.

Busch was stung when owner Rick Hendrick decided to "part ways" with his talented, tempestuous young star, the seeming odd fit in a lineup of less-controversial Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears. His results by age 21 and his promise quickly landed him a job at Joe Gibbs Racing beginning last season and he raced like a driver scorned, winning 21 races in NASCAR's top three series, eight in Sprint Cup. But he again slumped in the Chase, finishing 10th in points.

This season was supposed to be the year everything came together. Mentally, emotionally, physically, he was supposed to be in congress and a serious threat to derail Johnson's run for a record fourth straight championship.

Not so far, as he is 37 points from 12th place and the final Chase position. And time is running out.

The refreshing or annoying brashness has been replaced at least temporarily with resignation to a daunting situation his performance can't completely control. He leads the Nationwide standings and could win his first title in a top-3 NASCAR national series there, but the stark reality of his Sprint Cup career is that despite filling his trophy case since leaving Hendrick, he's never finished better in the standings than in his final year there, when he was fifth in 2007.

"This season, the way it's gone, has kind of been a struggle," he said. "A lot of people picked us to be the champions this year because of the year we had last year. ... But for some reason we just haven't been able to hit our stride. We need to get back to being able to be consistent week in and week out. Even during a race, being consistent."

Even though Busch would share the top seed to begin the Chase as a four-time winner, should he qualify, he seems to downplay his chances. Or at least take into account a frustrating season.

"As far as being championship contenders (this season), the only thing that we can really do is just try to run as consistent as possible," he said. "I don't foresee us being the guy that's going to finish first, second or third every single race like you can count on (former JGR teammate Tony Stewart) or (Gordon) or (Johnson) on doing. We're more of the guy that's going to be maybe third here but then we might be seventh, eighth, ninth here or 11th or 12th there."

The view seems different for Vickers, perhaps because he took his own path to Richmond and the chance to qualify for the Chase for the first time both for himself and Red Bull.

He became the youngest to win a top-3 NASCAR national series when he captured the Nationwide title at age 20 in 2003, was seemingly a perfect fit into Hendrick's talented and presentable line-up. He spoke, like many of Rick Hendrick's drivers, of a fatherly relationship with the owner and a long future in the new shop built for him and Busch aside Johnson and Gordon's.

But Vickers was less of a fit than he knew or was willing to admit at the time, and after growing tired, he said in 2007, of feeling like the kid who could never grow up in the shadow of Gordon and Johnson, he opted for a lifestyle and career move with upstart Red Bull.

Sitting in a director's chair next to his new car at a 2007 media function, Vickers spoke of anxiety but never doubt and the freedom he already felt.

"For me in this situation is, at Red Bull, they only know me for who I am today, the experience I have today, the person I am today," he said. "At Hendrick, I was always fighting the fact that everyone knew me for who I was when I was 17 and I've changed a lot. I've grown a lot. I still have a lot of growing to do and a lot of learning to do, but I've changed a lot since that time. It's hard when you work with people when you're really young and you grow older, and they still see you as somewhat as that person."

Hendrick was surprised. His co-workers later suggested Vickers got the treatment he earned within the shop. But he was gone, and career-wise, so went the thought, into oblivion.

That thought persisted when Vickers missed 13 races his first year with Red Bull, including the Daytona 500. He finished 38th in points that first year with Red Bull, 19th in 2008 and is 13th, 20 points from a Chase berth.

He's never finished better than 15th in final points, his last season with Hendrick in 2006.

But things have improved. He has won six poles, collected his second win of his career at Michigan and already has career-bests with 12 top-10s. He's one top-5 from tying his career-high. And he's considering a possible Chase berth that seems more like a reward than a consolation.

"For us, we were the first employees that walked in the shop," he said. "There weren't tools, much less racecars. We had to start from scratch. The fact we built what we have in this amount of time is impressive."

Perspective matters.

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