Stewart-Haas Racing said Friday morning that Brian Vickers will be the interim driver of its No. 14 Chevrolet SS for all the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events during Speedweeks Feb. 12-21 at Daytona International Speedway. Vickers will practice the car Friday as the team readies for Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited.
Vickers was introduced as the driver during a press conference at Daytona International Speedway. He is a three-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series and was the 2003 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion. His best Sprint Cup finish at Daytona is a second-place in the 2014 Coke Zero 400. His first career Sprint Cup victory came in 2006 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. The 2016 Daytona 500 will mark Vickers’ ninth start in the season opening Sprint Cup event.
“I told myself that if I came back to racing, particularly the Sprint Cup Series, I wanted to be in a car that had a good chance to win,” Vickers said. “I hate Tony’s not here, but I’m honored to keep his seat warm until he gets back. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and wish him a quick recovery.”
Stewart was injured in an all-terrain vehicle accident on January 31 in California. The 44-year old suffered a suffered a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra. He was flown to North Carolina the following Tuesday and underwent surgery the following day. The was no timetable for Stewart’s return, but he is expected to make a full recovery and return to the No. 14 Chevrolet in 2016
Friday morning Stewart held an impromptu press conference from his home while walking on a treadmill only a few minutes prior to the team’s announcement in Daytona. The three time champion who already said he will retire fulltime from the NASCAR Sprint Cup series after 2016, answered fans questions as he walked without a brace. Rock music could be heard in the background.
Stewart said he is doing much better, and that his pain is under control. He said he wanted everyone to know that while everyone was in Daytona he wasn’t just “sitting on my ass here in Charlotte”. Doctors won’t let Stewart travel to Daytona. He did say that he had visited his race shop earlier in the week.
“Daytona is just a missed deal,” he said, adding, “We will be there next year, just in a different role.”
Stewart said that all his focus will be on returning to racing and getting back into the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. The driver known for racing in all sorts of series away from NASCAR, said that since this is his last year, he will put “100 percent” focus on NASCAR.
He later said the accident was a slow speed one. He said he didn’t realize how far of a drop there was on the far side of a sand dune he was traversing.
“I didn’t hit the wrong dune,” Stewart said. “I just went over one and just nose-planted into the bottom of it. It was about a 20- to 25-foot drop. It wasn’t exactly what I had planned when I went over the lip of it. I didn’t think it was straight down on the other side.”
“I’ve never been hurt so bad running five miles an hour.”
He also added that it was somewhat embarrassing to tell everyone that he had been hurt at such a slow speed but that the all-terrain vehicle he was driving simply fell and bottomed out.
Currently Stewart said he feels good when walking or lying flat on his back. He only wears a brace when he is forced to sit or ride in a car.
“We’ve been through a lot worse than this,” Stewart said, “This is just a bump in the road.
Stewart broke his leg a sprint car crash at a speedway in Iowa in 2013. He missed nearly all of the second half of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season and returned in 2014. As for his replacement at Daytona, Stewart said Vickers had visited him earlier in the week. Stewart said he was confident with Vickers in his car.
“He definitely deserves to be in a good car, he’s excited,” Stewart said. “He’s a good guy, he’s a good race car driver, and he had circumstances like mine that are out of your control that put him out.”
Vickers has suffered his own medical issues. He missed the final weeks of the 2013 season after he developed a blood clot in his leg. In December 2014, his body began rejecting a patch inserted in 2010 and he had surgery to replace it. He missed the first two weeks of the 2015 season to allow his sternum to heal enough in case he got in a crash. He would return for two races before a small blood clots developed in his lungs. He has not raced since March 2015. Michael Waltrip Racing replaced Vickers after his most recent diagnosis. The team shut down at the end of last season.
Friday Stewart seemed pleased that Vickers was getting a chance to race on NASCAR’s biggest stage.
“It’s nice to be able to take something negative on my side and be able to do something positive for somebody else with it,” Stewart said. “I think he’ll do a good job for us down there.”