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Martin move provides Vickers with head start

August 19, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Full-time opportunity in No. 55 comes earlier than expected

Related: Entry list for Bristol race

Brian Vickers’ tenure as the regular driver of Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 car will begin sooner than expected.

Mark Martin’s move to Stewart-Haas Racing as primary replacement for the injured Tony Stewart has led MWR to put Vickers in the seat for all but one remaining race this season, meaning the three-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series will get a head start on his first full-time campaign with MWR beginning next year.

MWR on Monday granted a release to Martin, who the past two seasons has shared the No. 55 car with Vickers and Waltrip. The NASCAR veteran will pilot Stewart’s car for all but one remaining race -- that at Talladega, where Nationwide Series regular Austin Dillon will return to the No. 14 -- while the three-time Sprint Cup champion misses the remainder of the season with a broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash Aug. 5.

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MWR announced last week that Vickers, who won earlier this season at New Hampshire despite his part-time status, would take over the No. 55 on his own beginning next season. Now he’ll finish the 2013 season in the vehicle, piloting every race save for Talladega, where his car owner will be behind the wheel.

“Obviously, Brian is poised to race for a championship,” Waltrip said. “The job he's done in the 55 on a limited basis has been really impressive. To be able to be a part‑timer and grab a win like he did at Loudon, that's just amazing in this day and age. But mostly it'll just get him up to speed on the mile‑and‑a‑halfs. He hasn't run any of those, and there's a lot of those in the schedule, so it'll just give him a chance to get familiar with what it's going to take to run consistently and fast on all those tracks. It's a really big deal for our organization to be able to get some more races in with Brian and the team as we prepare for 2014.”

Vickers hasn’t competed full time in NASCAR’s premier division since 2011, his final season with a Red Bull organization that is no longer in the sport.

 “No one wants to see Tony out of the 14, but I am appreciative of the opportunity to get more seat time in the 55 as a result,” he said. “I didn’t think things could get any better than last week’s announcement with Aaron's, but having a chance to run the rest of the 2013 season creates a tremendous opportunity for our team, and we're excited that all of this came together the way it did. … We’ve proven we can win races in a part time capacity so far in 2013 and I'm confident that spending more time working with the 55 crew will only to help improve our already strong performance to date, giving us the momentum needed to start the 2014 season off strong in Daytona.”

Sunday’s event at Michigan, where Martin gambled on a fuel run in the final laps that came up just short, proved his final run in the No. 55. “I guess everyone will understand now why we went for it,” crew chief Rodney Childers wrote Monday on Twitter. Although Martin never won in the car, Waltrip credits the 40-time race winner with helping to raise the competitive level of his organization.

“With Mark, we accomplished everything we hoped to when he came to this organization, which was bringing that winning confidence to the team, the experience to help elevate our program and ultimately find the full-time driver for the future who can race for a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship,” said Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 champion.

“Mark’s leadership the past two years has been so impactful that he has left a mark on this company that will be here as long as we race. This opportunity to help two Hall of Famers in Mark and Tony Stewart at the same time, while getting the opportunity to run the rest of the year with Brian makes sense for MWR. But nothing could happen without the support of Aaron’s, Toyota and the other MWR sponsors. Each of them saw the same benefits in such a move and helped make it happen. This is a truly win, win, win situation.”

Martin’s release was a mutual decision between MWR, the driver and Aaron’s, which backs the car and will be sponsor for every race next season. Vickers was originally scheduled to finish his final part-time slate by driving three remaining Sprint Cup events in the No. 55, beginning Saturday night at Bristol. Vickers will drive the car for that race while Martin slides over to the No. 14.

“It’s been such an incredible experience,” Martin said of his tenure at MWR. “The working environment they have there is so great. It is the least uptight and least tense of anyplace I’ve ever been. Really, really have enjoyed being a part of it. I felt really warm and welcome there, and I really love the people in that organization. A lot of the people I’ve worked with at other places or I’ve known, and it was a very comfortable situation.”

Martin’s best chance of winning at MWR came last year at Pocono, when he finished second in an event claimed by Joey Logano. Sunday, he stayed out during the final two cautions and tried to stretch his fuel to the finish, running dry with four laps remaining and finishing 27th. In 39 races with MWR, he recorded five poles and as many top-five finishes. His tenure coincided with MWR putting two cars in the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time, something the owner does not see as a coincidence.

“Our competition meetings, back in 2012 when he showed up, he just brought a new level of intensity to them,” said Waltrip, whose drivers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. are both poised for another run at the playoff. “People wanted to know what Mark thought and what Mark said. He definitely left his mark on Michael Waltrip Racing. We’re stronger, we’re better, we’re more confident, we’re more focused today than we were the day mark showed up.”

True to form, Martin takes no creditis .

“To be real honest with you, people can say what they want, but I have had very little to do with the progression of that organization,” he said. “I stepped in at a good time when the organization was on the upswing, and it was just starting to show on the race track before I arrived there. And when I stepped in, everything was just in place and clicking. … We all got along so well and worked really hard to achieve the performance that we achieved.”

With Vickers’ situation settled, Waltrip’s attention now turns to re-signing Childers. “We’re working still on Rodney, and that isn’t done yet,” he said. “But we’ll turn our focus to that now and see where we end up there.”

Vickers is also competing full-time this season on the Nationwide Series for Joe Gibbs Racing, which like MWR fields Toyotas. The 29-year-old is fifth in the standings, 18 points behind leader Sam Hornish Jr. The schedules of NASCAR’s top two series align the remainder of the season save one weekend in late September, when the Nationwide tour is in Kentucky while the Sprint Cup cars compete in New Hampshire.

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