It’s official: Brian Vickers to drive for Tony Stewart in Speedweeks at Daytona

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Stewart-Haas Racing made it official Friday morning: Brian Vickers will drive during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway for the injured Tony Stewart.

Vickers, who competed in two races last year before being sidelined with blood clot issues, will drive the No. 14 Chevrolet in all events at Daytona, including the Daytona 500.

That starts with Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited. On Sunday, Vickers will pilot the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet in qualifying for the Daytona 500. He’ll race again next Thursday in the Can-Am Duel and on Feb. 21 in the 58th running of The Great American Race.

“If I was gonna come back to racing, particularly in Sprint Cup, I wanted to be in a car I was confident could win,” Vickers said during a press conference in the track’s media center. “Unfortunately, this is the car I’m in, because it means Tony’s not here. I can understand what he’s going through, and this whole team. I hate that he’s not here, but I’m honored to keep his seat warm until he gets back.”

Vickers’ announcement is only for Daytona. In a media release, the team announced, “An interim driver for the No. 14 team in the races following Daytona has not been determined.”

However, SHR president Brett Frood hinted Vickers may not be a one-and-done driver after the 500.

“Don’t be surprised to see Brian in the car again, and we may have other drivers,” Frood said.

Greg Zipadelli, SHR vice president of competition, is confident Vickers can take Stewart’s car to a strong finish in Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited.

“We come here to win,” Zipadelli said. “We had the opportunity to run. Why wouldn’t we? … When you’re in this situation you look for the best candidate. We looked at his restrictor-plate record. We talked to Tony and we felt Brian would fit our group the best. … We know he’s a good competitor. (He) was our best chance to perform at Speedweeks.”

Crew chief Mike Bugarewicz added, “At end of the day, the job is the same: perform the best we can. That perspective hasn’t changed.  A bit changes on the seat side, but the whole organization has great people to come together and make this happen.”

Vickers is looking forward to working with Bugarewicz: “With Mike, I’m actually excited this is his first race as a crew chief. We’ll grow together.”

Frood also revealed that Stewart will have no further surgeries in his recovery from an ATV accident on Jan. 31.

“No surgeries,” Frood said. “Obviously, Tony had an impactful injury and the surgery was very important, and the rehabilitation and process. … He’s itching to get in the car again. We don’t have a timetable. It’ll be up to his doctors. I know it won’t be for a lack of effort on his part.

“The situation is fluid, a lot of different scenarios to every decision. The focus is on Speedweeks, then we’ll figure out Atlanta and the rest and get Tony back in the car as soon as possible.”

As for Vickers’ longtime problem with blood clots, he has been cleared by his doctors and confirmed by NASCAR doctors to return to racing.

“The biggest thing is I’ve worked with my doctors for the last year,” Vickers said. “We tried to find the right plan to be able to race safely and be protected from clots. Beyond that, I was just living my life and waiting for the right opportunity.

After having to step out of the car early last year, Vickers worried that his racing career was, if not over, in doubt.

“I didn’t know if I would race again,” Vickers said. “But it was very much a possibility. The last five or six years of my life have been a roller coaster. We take a certain level of risk … but not undue risk. That’s why doctors approved me with the plans we developed. For me, it’s one day at a time.”

But he’s spent the time since then getting himself ready and making sure his blood clot issues are under control.

“As soon as I got the call (from Stewart-Haas Racing) … it’s pretty special,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if I’d be in the Daytona 500 again, and now here I am. It’s an honor and I couldn’t be with a better group of guys. It’s a big seat to fill but I’ll do my best.”

The biggest challenge for Vickers on race day is pretty much the same as the other 39 drivers who will take the green flag with him.

“Stay out of the ‘Big One,’ ” Vickers said. “I talked to the guys about it. I’m not down for riding in the back. I want to go to front and stay there. I’ve stayed in great shape. … So I feel pretty good about the fitness level. My ability to drive, I’ve been in this position before. I’m comfortable getting in after being out before. … I want to contribute to success… not failure. It’s funny I started in a Hendrick Chevy and now I’m back in one.”

Vickers is a three-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series. His first career win came in 2006 at Talladega Superspeedway. His best career finish at Daytona was runner-up in the 2014 Coke Zero 400 in July 2014.

“When green drops next Sunday, I’ll enjoy it as much as anyone,” Vickers said of his ninth career start in the Daytona 500. “If I have 5-10 more, great, if this is it, that’s fine too. I couldn’t be happier in my life. I’m back, and I can’t wait to work with these guys.”

Contributing: @TonyDiZinno

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