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

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”