Things seem to go better with Coke for Vickers in 2014

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It may just be a coincidence, but for some reason it appears that Coca-Cola products seem to have brought out some of the best in Brian Vickers this season.

Seven races ago, Vickers finished sixth in the Coca-Cola 600 and climbed to eighth in the Sprint Cup standings afterwards.

Although he had fallen back as far as 20th in the standings since then, Sunday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway brought out more of the best in Vickers, who earned his best finish of the season, finishing second to winner Aric Almirola in the rain-shortened 112-lap race.

In addition, Vickers climbed from 19th to 16th in the Sprint Cup standings but is still two spots shy of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup as of this writing.

Sure, a lot of things can happen over the remaining eight races prior to setting the 16-driver field for the expanded and revamped Chase, but Vickers hopes to build upon Sunday’s finish and work to further solidify his potential berth in the upcoming playoffs.

“No, it wasn’t,” Vickers said when asked after the race if it was an easy afternoon.  “There was a lot of strategy going on, and it kept changing. When we started the race, knowing there was a competition caution coming at lap 20, we thought about kind of taking it easy and going to the back, and lo and behold, the lane we were in just kept going forward, so we went to the front, and then it got a little bit too dicey for my comfort that early, and guys were moving around a lot.

“So we went to the back, just had a bad feeling about kind of the energy in the pack and where it was headed, so we dropped back, and at about two laps later there was a big crash and we were fortunate to be out of that.

“Then we kept going there and got to a point where we were ready to go but just didn’t quite have the speed we needed in the car to get from where we were at to the front, and we ended up actually getting into the pack at about the wrong moment and were fortunate enough to get through the last big wreck.

“I saw it kind of starting out of the corner of my eye, a car from the outside to the inside just went way too quick, and I just jumped on the brakes and as soon as I saw it opening downshifted and went to the gas and was able to get through it.  But very lucky to get through that wreck and keep the car out of trouble.”

Vickers owes much of Sunday’s end result to late-race pit strategy by crew chief Billy Scott. Like a Weather Channel meteorologist, Scott read the radar and the approaching rain and devised a plot that would get Vickers up toward the front and hopefully keep him there if the rains came – which indeed they ultimately did.

“The guys did a great job,” Vickers said. “(Scott) called a great race and put me in a position to win there at the end. You know, it was just — we were just a lap away from an opportunity to make a pass.

“I had one shot at the 43 with a run, and the 13 got to my right rear corner and I just couldn’t move up and do anything with it.  We were just stuck there. And then the rain just came at the wrong time for us and the right time for them (race winner Aric Almirola).”

Now that he’s back up to 16th in the Sprint Cup standings, Vickers hopes to build upon the momentum gained at Daytona and hold on to that 16th and final qualifying spot for the Chase.

“I’m just really proud of everyone on this Aaron’s Dream Machine team,” Vickers said. “They’ve done a great job getting the momentum going back in the right direction, and that’s what we need right now.”

Almirola’s win makes him the 12th different winner thus far in 2014 with eight races to go. A number of drivers remain winless including Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and yes, Vickers.

Barring any additional first-time winners this season, with only four spots left still open to drivers to make the Chase on points and not wins, Vickers is well aware of the huge job ahead of him to not only hold on to what he has, but also to pad it in any way he can.

“Obviously the fewer spots there are, the intensity picks up for the guys in that position,” he said. “I think every week you go to every race trying to win and knowing what’s at stake if you do and what’s at stake if you don’t.

“The closer to the Chase you get, the more that intensity is going to pick up. Our job is to go out there and try to win next weekend.  We came close this weekend, but the weather didn’t work in our favor, and that’s that. We’ve just got to get on with it and go to next week.”

And next week can’t come soon enough, as it was at New Hampshire that Vickers earned the third Sprint Cup win of his career and the first since 2009 in the 19th race of last season while driving a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Can he make it two in a row in the early summer race at Loudon?

We’ll find that out next Sunday. But just in case, maybe Vickers should have a bottle or can of Coke next to himself behind the wheel. It may give him the added extra he just may need.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.