Playing hurt is something that virtually any driver will struggle with at some point in his career. The urge to remain in a car that is literally yours, custom built to your specifications around your dimensions can be overpowering. We all remember Dale Earnhardt being driven to tears at Indianapolis in 1996, giving way to Mike Skinner after a handful of laps thanks to suffering a broken clavicle at Talladega just a couple of weeks earlier.
This season has had its own example in the case of Denny Hamlin, hobbling around, gingerly entering and exiting the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at Phoenix to bring about the naysaying of many who questioned his decision-making abilities.
I guess the last few weeks has shut most of them up – myself included.
With the startling announcement last Thursday (May 13) that Brian Vickers had been hospitalized for what was eventually found to be blood clots in his lungs as well as the veins of his legs, and would miss the race at Dover, the next question after who would be his sub was “When will he return?”
Hopefully the answer is, when he’s healthy enough to safely compete.
After being admitted to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. last week, Vickers was administered a drug called Coumadin to break up the clotting he was experiencing. It is a blood thinner commonly used for this practice, but with thin blood comes the associate side effect of easily bruising, internal bleeding and the possibility of external bleeding for a while should he suffer a laceration.
My friend’s dad was prescribed the same medication a few years after having similar blockages and I witnessed firsthand how the slightest nick from her dog jumping up with its front paws, making the slightest contact with his bare legs, resulted in 45-minutes of applied pressure with a cold compress, his leg elevated in the air to help stop the bleeding.
Now imagine slapping the wall backwards driver’s side first into turn 1 at Charlotte, entering that turn at 190 mph. Yeah, I don’t want to think about it either.
NASCAR has a roster full of drivers who have been hurt and come back too soon to less than desirable outcomes. Steve Park, who got t-boned under caution at Darlington competing in a Nationwide race back in 2001 and suffered severe head trauma, tried to come back perhaps too soon in 2002 at Darlington that spring. After a summer of lackluster performances, he would find himself barrel rolling down the Pocono backstretch like Davey Allison circa 1992, collecting teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. with him in the process.
Speaking of Allison, he did perhaps the best impression of Humpty Dumpty, or Arnold’s T-800 from Terminator 2, during his brief career after being knocked silly at The Winston (now the All-Star Race) at Charlotte in 1992. Already wearing a flak jacket to hold his busted ribs together, he then sported a pair of black eyes –literally like Beetlejuice (his words) – after going for the aforementioned ride off DW’s nose at Pocono in June of ’92. Never mind that they had to Velcro his hand to the shifter for Sonoma as well.
There are also other drivers who waited out the rough ride and returned when their bodies had healed. Ernie Irvan was moments from death in 1994 when he turned head on into the backstretch at Michigan International Speedway in morning practice. It would be over a year before he would return to Cup competition, wearing a patch over an eye that was slow to heal from his accident.
He would again return to full-time competition in 1996, winning two races, including Michigan – the track that nearly took his life. He would win once more in 1997 before suffering another head injury in an accident at Michigan once again during practice for a Busch (now Nationwide) race.
Current ESPN commentator Ricky Craven suffered a pair of hard wrecks at both Atlanta and Darlington in 1997, leaving him with a severe concussion that would bench him just four races into the 1998 season. He would return 13 races later, struggling to regain the consistent form he had displayed in Larry Hedrick’s No. 41 team that got him his coveted Hendrick Motorsports opportunity a year earlier. He would race only four more times with Hendrick before sitting out another 10 races to prevent any further injury should he tangle with the wall again.
Back then the only energy absorbing item on the track was the mush between your ears.
Two-time Sprint Cup champion Terry Labonte was involved in a pair of grinding crashes at the July Daytona event in 2000 and again at New Hampshire. He got out of the car after the first caution at the following event at Pocono, suffering from post-concussion symptoms. He would miss the next two races at Indy and Watkins Glen. After further evaluation by another doctor, it was discovered he was actually suffering from an inner-ear problem which led to vertigo.
While he may have sat out thinking he had a concussion, it led him to discover the real reason for his discomfort, which if you want to look at it in a positive light, helped uncover something that may have prevented him from winning the last true Labor Day edition of the Southern 500 in 2003.
So where does this leave Vickers? At home, resting comfortably on blood-thinning medication. How might it affect his career? If he simply waits it out and gets himself clear of clots and off the medication, he should be fine. There is more damage to be done coming back too soon, trying to rush things because you are in fear of somebody taking your job.
NASCAR’s resident statesman Jeff Burton this weekend said, “Sitting out a race or two or three, four, five or 10 ain’t going to ruin his career – the main thing is that he’s healthy.” After all, this is the original NASCAR Team Red Bull driver – the one who bailed on Hendrick Motorsports where he won a Nationwide Series championship to take a chance with an upstart Toyota team.
He was with the team when they were missing races in 2007 due to lack of speed and owner points, eventually getting them to victory lane last August at Michigan International Speedway and ultimately into the Chase following Richmond in September.
Before missing the race at Dover, Vickers had moved up to 20th in points following his third top-10 of the year at Darlington, after a miserable stretch that saw him finish 37th, 38th, 29th and 20th. Vickers was 164 points out of the final transfer position for the Chase. As a result of missing Dover, Vickers dropped to 27th and sits nearly 300 points out of 12th with little hope of making the Chase this season.
All of this, however, is secondary to Vickers’s health and well-being. Get well soon Brian – all of us in the NASCAR community wish you a quick recovery and look forward to seeing you back at the track.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.