LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Stuck in a hospital bed, Brian Vickers wanted to live another day.
Once he recovered, he hungered for a competitive ride.
And once he landed a solid seat, well, Vickers simply had to win.
Even when life tossed obstacles in Vickers’ path, his determined spirit never waned. After four years of health scares and unemployment put his promising career in doubt, Vickers kept pushing toward the finish line. He got there Sunday as the surprise winner at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“Coming here and sitting in Victory Lane, just makes it one of the most special events in my life,” Vickers said.
He had plenty of drivers in the series pulling for this comeback.
One by one, they saluted Vickers with a wave from the car or a back slap on the way to Victory Lane.
Close friend Jimmie Johnson, a five-time Cup champion, pumped his fist out the window in pure happiness as if he’d won a sixth title.
Vickers did all he could to savor the unforgettable scene.
“When you have so much love and support around you,” Vickers said, “it makes all the difference in the world.”
Vickers even tried to celebrate with the fans, though the New Hampshire gates wouldn’t open to the grandstands. That’s OK. He had a pretty big mob waiting for him — even his fiancee, who had left the track to catch a ride home, only to reverse course and make it back just in time to greet him.
About the only key cog missing was owner Michael Waltrip. Waltrip and co-owner Rob Kauffman were in Europe this weekend for the 20th annual Goodwood Festival of Speed in England.
London, Loudon. Off by a letter.
Vickers drives a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing and shares the No. 55 Toyota with Waltrip and Mark Martin. His win made him the No. 1 contender for a full-time ride at MWR in 2014.
“Wins help a lot of business issues. So this was a great day for that,” MWR general manager Ty Norris said. “He’s been our focus. We would love to have him in that car.”
Vickers snapped a 75-race winless streak and hadn’t won since the August 2009 race at Michigan. He won his first career Cup race in August 2006 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Vickers made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in 2009, only to be sidelined most of the next season with blood clots. He had two procedures to close a hole in his heart and insert a stent into a vein in his left leg.
After Red Bull Racing shut down after the 2011 season, Vickers hooked on with a limited ride with MWR. He has been driving full-time this season in the Nationwide Series for Joe Gibbs Racing.
With his first checkered flag since his return, he is done looking back.
“That’s why I came back,” he said. “For what’s to be, not what’s happened.”
Kyle Busch was second and Jeff Burton third. Pole winner Brad Keselowski was fourth and Aric Almirola fifth.
Jimmie Johnson brushed off his 43rd-place start to finish sixth. Tony Stewart was running inside the top 10 at the final caution until he ran out of fuel and plummeted to 26th.
“It’s hard to calculate how much we are saving on the cautions,” Stewart said. “We thought we were about three-quarters of a lap to the good before that last caution. Obviously, we didn’t save as much as I thought we would.”
Busch and Vickers finished 1-2 in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race. Both drivers had to stretch their fuel, and Vickers ran out just as he crossed the finish line.
He was in a similar spot again down the stretch a race later. He had just enough to zip past Stewart with 13 laps left and then pull away in the green-white-checkered finish. He didn’t run out until it was time for the celebratory burnout.
Stewart wasn’t so lucky a week after he finished second at Daytona.
Johnson, who won at Daytona, was mired in last place for the first time in his career after his No. 48 Chevrolet flunked post-qualifying inspection. No big deal. The points leader made quick work through the back of the field and worked his way up to the front for most of the race.
He easily breezed past 71-year-old Morgan Shepherd, the oldest driver to start a race in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series.
Kurt Busch led a race-high 102 laps before he connected with Ryan Newman to end his shot at his first victory of the season. Off the restart, Danica Patrick was involved in a three-car wreck that included boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
“We’re all bunched up on those restarts,” Patrick said. “I’m not sure if I misjudged the breaking zone or they stopped really quick in front of me.”
Vickers survived it all to win for the third time in 271 Sprint Cup races.
He thanked the MWR team for “believing in me and giving me a second chance.”
But he wants more.
He received the clean bill of health, the ride and the victory.
With a full 36-race schedule, Vickers said there is one more check he needs to put in his box.
“I feel like I can win a championship with this team,” he said. “That’s our goal.”