KOONTZ LAKE, Ind. -- With just three races remaining before the Chase, NASCAR has its own version of "Trading Spaces."
Brian Vickers' stock is rapidly rising as the Team Red Bull driver provided the dominant storyline of the weekend at Michigan. He won the pole on Friday, nearly won the Nationwide Series race on Saturday, and came back on Sunday to prove he was "good to the last drop," winning the CARFAX 400, a fuel-mileage contest.
The win left Vickers closing in on the 12th and final Chase position, just 21 points behind Mark Martin. Vickers chopped a whopping 115 points off the deficit in one race.
While Vickers is hot, Kyle Busch is not.
After excelling early in the season in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series, Busch is fading fast. He was 23rd on Sunday, dropping to 15th in the standings, and could very easily miss the Chase when the checkered flag drops at Richmond on Sept. 12.
More about Busch's decline later.
Vickers' emergence in the battle for the Chase is impressive, but it shouldn't surprise anyone who knows the driver's studious approach to racing. When it comes to pure intellect, Vickers may be the smartest driver in NASCAR. He was valedictorian of his high school class in Thomasville, N.C., and brings an engineer's approach to the race car.
Eavesdrop on his scanner frequency during a race and you'll find his communication with crew chief Ryan Pemberton to be calm, stoic and analytic -- quite the opposite of what one hears from Dale Earnhardt Jr., who sounds like a bad episode of MTV's The Real World.
If he had not decided to become a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, Vickers could have easily worked for NASA. "I've always been fascinated with rocket science and it's something I've always wanted to be involved in," Vickers said. "The prospect of going into space is what has intrigued me the most. I always took engineering classes in school and understood that. There is something about exploring the unknown that has intrigued me."
Some might consider it a waste that Vickers' didn't put his intelligence to better use than driving in circles for a career. "There were people who wondered why I decided to drive race cars, but I had been racing cars for many years through high school, so that wasn't a big surprise to a lot of people," Vickers said. "It has helped some having an understanding of mechanics and how cars work and aerodynamics but I'm by no means an engineer. That is why the crew is there. It helps to relate to them and speak the language. I think it's a huge benefit."
Perhaps that's why Vickers knew just how much fuel to conserve in the closing stages of Sunday's race. He pitted for the last time with 51 laps to go and made the distance. When his former teammate, Jimmie Johnson, ran out of fuel with two laps to go, Vickers was far enough in front of another former teammate, Jeff Gordon, that he could have coasted to the checkered flag if he had to.
But even Vickers wasn't sure in the late stages whether the fuel strategy would work. "I've got to tell you, when you're coming to two laps to go, I'm still sweating bullets, no matter how much confidence you've got," Vickers said. "I don't know how hard [Jimmie Johnson] was pushing his car. I definitely had a little bit left -- I was trying to push him to use more fuel. I felt like I was comfortable where I was using my fuel."
The last time Vickers won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, at Talladega in 2006, he had to virtually head for cover after he drove into the back of his then-Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson and Talladega favorite Earnhardt Jr., crashing both on the last lap.
His biggest concern today is that he still isn't sure if he is returning to Red Bull next season. "We have every intention of getting this done [quickly]," team general manager Jay Frye said. "Every intention has always been to redo this. We're working hard to get it done. We certainly don't want him to go anywhere."
If Vickers makes the Chase, he can certainly increase his leverage in contract negotiations. And on Sunday, he took a big step in that direction with his second career victory.
Vickers was called an "idiot" byKyle Busch during Saturday's Nationwide Series race, because Busch thought he was racing too close.
Then, after the race, Busch pulled in front of Vickers at an angle on pit road, hitting the right front panel of Vickers' car in the process. Busch climbed out of his car and walked over to Vickers' car, leaned in and had a brief discussion. Vickers climbed out of his car and the two stood toe-to-toe momentarily with Busch pushing up the visor on Vickers' helmet before they separated.
"[Vickers] hung on my right rear quarter panel all the way down the front stretch and gave the win to [Brad Keselowski]," Busch explained. "He slowed us both down so much. He had no idea the 88 car was coming, and the 88 just drove past both of us on the outside because Brian Vickers was trying to slow both of us down.
"Unfortunately, you race with idiots, and I guess you're going to have that some times,: Busch added. "I'm sure I'm complaining, and I'm whining and I'm a crybaby, but that's uncalled for [by Vickers] and it's stupid. I would have run my own line instead of giving it to the third-place car."
After that incident, Vickers gave his thoughts on the situation.
"I'm so sorry. I forgot it was the Kyle Busch Show," he said. "I thought we were racing for a win. I thought it was my job to hold him off. Apparently not. He came over to the car after the race, knocked our right fender in, which was unnecessary, and then started crying like a little baby. I asked him to give me a minute to get out and we could talk about it like men and if he wanted to fight that was fine with me, but he ran off."
Naturally, after Sunday's victory, it was only a matter of time before someone asked Vickers about the incident again.
"There are some people that you meet in life that are just going to do stupid things," he said of Busch. "You just learn to accept it. You just don't let it bother you. You know, you have patience. You just live your life and run your race. [Saturday] was ridiculous. It was unnecessary. I had a lot of fun. It was a hard race. I wanted to win badly. We ended up second. I let it go at that. In a lot of ways I feel sorry for Kyle, that he lives that angry about stuff, something so small. I hope that he can get past it."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. voiced his displeasure over the current car that is used in NASCAR Sprint Cup -- previously known as the "Car of Tomorrow" -- during his Friday media availability.
"I think we need to open our eyes a little bit -- everyone," Earnhardt said. "I think media could address it a little stronger. I think that the drivers could be a little more vocal about it. I think NASCAR could probably be a little more urgent in improving our product.
"I just remember how the other cars drove. I liked how they drove and I like how this car is safe but I want to be able to race it like we raced the other cars.
"Even when things are good, we shouldn't rest on any success we may be having. We are not really where we want to be, I don't think, as a sport. We need to do things to excite corporate America. Excite the fans. We need to get proactive immediately to make that happen."
Considering that Earnhardt has won just one race since May 2006 -- and that his last victory came over a year ago at the June 2008 Michigan race -- NASCAR defended its current car by saying Earnhardt's complaint is typical of a driver who isn't winning.
"I think where we are right now, the consensus in the garage area -- which leads us to our consensus -- is that there's not going to be a major change to this car," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "The reason, I think, where that comes from, is the double-file restarts and the spark that really put into the racing. I enjoy it; I think all the drivers enjoy it. I think the fans love it.
"Urgency could create more havoc or more expense that we don't need," Helton added. "And, oh, by the way, I'd make the argument that the racing we've got on the race track is as good as I've seen it in a long time. So a reaction from us could interrupt that.
"[Earnhardt's] expression was more broad about things in general, that we need to be working on things to make the sport better in general, and I agree with that. As it comes to the car, he and his [No. 88] team in particular -- not his organization, because others in his organization are having a better year with it -- [are struggling] and so there's some frustration there that I think contributes to his comments."
Ironically, Earnhardt's third-place finish on Sunday was one of his best of the season. Of course, races at Michigan often become more about saving fuel than a fierce fight to the finish, but his top-three finish gave the driver a brief feeling of what it's like to be back near the top.
"I am real happy with how we ran," Earnhardt said. "Hopefully we can keep it going."
By the time this column appears online, I will have bid farewell to a family member and loved one.
The name Dr. Ron Krol means nothing to the larger world of auto racing, but my brother-in-law is at the heart of some of my clearest auto racing memories. Less than two years after Ron married my sister, he and I sat in his car on Memorial Day, 1969, listening to Mario Andretti win his only Indianapolis 500. Andretti was his favorite race driver, and to a young kid growing up in Indiana, there was a mythical quality about this huge race that put the state of Indiana on the map every May.
Ron told me about the times he attended the race, and his stories colored my visions of the race, inspiring me to actually be at the Indianapolis 500 in person one day. I didn't get that chance until 1981, when, as a student at Indiana University, I pulled an all-nighter with 400,000 of my closest friends and crammed into the fourth turn infield to see the race for the first time.
There was also the time when my sister and brother-in-law came to visit on Memorial Day Weekend in 1971. That year, the Indianapolis 500 was held on a Saturday, and I remember riding with them to a motorcycle dealership in South Bend with Sid Collins' voice on the radio describing the Indy 500 on the "world's largest radio network."
Again, I was mesmerized by what I heard on the radio and was able to share this with my brother-in-law. That was also the same day I filled out a raffle ticket at the dealership and won two tickets to see the Chicago White Sox play the Washington Senators.
Those are memories of youth that are still in color while other memories have faded to pastel or even black-and-white.
While Ron Krol was physically still alive, my brother-in-law left a long time ago, a victim of Alzheimer's disease at an age when most are beginning their retirement. A little over a week ago as I arose to board an early-morning flight to Columbus, Ohio, for the IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio, there was a message from my sister-in-law saying that Ron had taken a turn for the worst.
It just so happened that the care center he was at was in the Columbus suburb of Westerville, near my niece and her family.
An hour after landing, I got a chance to see him for the final time and say goodbye. I knew it would only be a matter of days before the disease took its final toll. Sure enough, Ron died on Aug. 11.
The irony of life is that my brother-in-law had a brilliant mind. He was the head of the Alcohol and Drug Education Program at Oakwood Hospital in Dearborn, Mich. -- a second career after he served as an engineer for General Electric in Fort Wayne, Ind., before heading back to school to get a PhD.
Ron's disease was that much more painful because he had such a beautiful, brilliant mind.
Two hours after writing this, I'll be attending Ron's funeral. While he may be gone, the memories of listening to those two Indianapolis 500s as a youngster with my brother-in-law are safely locked away in my memory.