Tuesday February 8th, 2011

For most of the last decade three teams have dominated NASCAR, forming the sport's ruling class: Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush-Fenway Racing. These teams have combined to win the last 11 championships, and last season alone, five of the top six drivers in the final standings were from this triumvirate.

Parity in NASCAR, there is not.

Yet in 2011 there is one team that, potentially, could join the powerhouses of Hendrick, Gibbs and Roush and be a weekly threat to take the checkered flag. It's a team I think will be the biggest X-factor in the sport this year, a team that is deep in both talent and question marks. That team: Red Bull Racing.

The reason '11 holds so much promise for Red Bull is that for the first time in the team's five-year history in the Cup series, it boasts two A-list drivers in Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers, both in the prime of their racing careers. "We have two guys who are capable of winning races and capable of making the Chase, have made the Chase and have won races," says Jay Frye, the general manager and vice president RBR. "Having two guys with that ability as teammates can help catapult them both into hopefully more success than either one has ever had."

Yet both drivers will be making comebacks of sorts in '11. Kahne, 30, had a disastrous 2010 season. Driving the first 31 races for Richard Petty Motorsports and then the final five for Red Bull, Kahne failed to reach Victory Lane last year for the first time since 2007. He authored only 10 top-10 finishes. In the offseason Kahne had arthroscopic surgery to remove plica -- folds of skin or muscle -- that had built up in both of his knees. He's now running and biking and swears he's close to 100 percent.

The health issues surrounding Vickers last year were more serious. Shortly after he finished 10th at Darlington (S.C.) Speedway last May, Vickers, 27, was hospitalized with chest pain. Doctors found blood clots in his left leg and lungs. He was put on blood thinners, had two procedures to close a hole in his heart, and spent eight months out of the race car. Away from the sport, Vickers, the one time Nationwide Series champion who had qualified for the Chase in 2009, didn't know if he'd return.

"I thought about a lot of things," Vickers says. "What's next? What am I going to do with my life? What's going to motivate me? What's going to drive me? If I was told I couldn't race, this may sound cliché, but I was probably going to move to Rome for a year and I was going to go back to college, maybe night school, and get my MBA."

But now off the blood-thinning medication, Vickers was cleared this offseason by doctors and NASCAR to resume racing. What was it like getting back behind the wheel? "Literally, it was like I hadn't been out of the car," he says. "The seat fit, the belts fit. I cranked it up and drove out off pit road. It was like riding a bike."

This season Vickers and Kahne will be piloting a new fleet of cars that will feature all of the latest and greatest technology of Red Bull Racing, which is one of the few middle-of-the-pack teams in the sport that has the resources to compete with Hendrick, Gibbs, and Roush. And Vickers and Kahne should mesh well as teammates. Both are laid back, cerebral, and excel at diagnosing setup problems in their cars. If their information sharing is as free-flowing as it is between the drivers at Hendrick -- which is clearly the gold standard team in NASCAR right now -- then Vickers and Kahne should be threats to make the Chase.

Kahne will be moving to Hendrick in 2012, which makes him a hired gun at RBR this season. Yet there's a feeling percolating among the other organizations that despite Kahne's lame duck status, Kahne and Vickers have the potential to flash as much speed this season as any teammate duo in the sport. "Kasey and Brian worry me," says one driver who qualified for the Chase in 2010. "They are ridiculously talented and Red Bull looks like a team on the rise, spending crazy amounts of money getting their cars ready. I'll be keeping a close eye on them from the moment we get to Daytona."

So will I.

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