NASCAR: Brian Vickers glad to look ahead to racing again after heart surgery

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On his way to a December photo shoot for sponsor Aaron’s, Michael Waltrip Racing driver Brian Vickers noticed something wasn’t right with himself.

It’s a feeling that he’s known all too often during his Sprint Cup career. Vickers has had to contend with multiple health issues, including blood clots in 2010 (left leg, lungs) and again in 2013 (right calf).

But what he endured over this off-season was the scariest experience he’s ever had. Doctors discovered that Vickers’ body was rejecting an artificial patch that had been placed over a hole in his heart in 2010.

“One thing led to another, and the doctors cut me open to make some repairs,” Vickers recalled today in Charlotte during the NASCAR Media Tour about the surgery he received to repair the hole.

“It was a pretty traumatic event obviously, going through that. It was definitely the worst of all the medical issues I’ve had to face.”

Thankfully, Vickers made it through. Now, he’s preparing for his return to competition in March at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after having received medical clearance and also maintaining his Chase eligibility.

For the first two races of the year, boss Michael Waltrip (Daytona 500) and team test driver Brett Moffitt (Atlanta) will drive his No. 55 Toyota Camry.

Today, Vickers looked back on his recovery process, which he said was “painful” and “extreme.” But it wasn’t all somber, as he joked that doctors had actually taken his old heart out and replaced it with a “lion heart” (‘It’s way stronger, way better,’ Vickers said.).

Vickers also recalled his first post-surgery trip out to MWR for its annual Christmas party, where he had to take a flight of stairs up to reach the party on the shop’s second floor. The kicker was that Waltrip had forgotten about the other way to reach the second floor: An elevator.

“It took me 15 minutes to catch my breath, and when we were leaving, [Waltrip] was like, ‘You wanna take the elevator?,'” Vickers said. “I’m like, ‘We could have done that on the way up!'”

Eventually, Vickers got the go-ahead from doctors to start resuming physical activity. He’s now able to do many exercises except those involving his chest since he says his sternum is still growing back together.

As for getting medical clearance to race again, he admitted that he wasn’t expecting it so soon in his recovery. But he’s certainly quite happy about it.

“I think it took all of us, including myself, by surprise when I went back for my last checkup and everything looked great and ahead of schedule, and [the doctors] said, ‘You’ll be clear for Vegas,'” Vickers said. “I said, ‘Are you sure? Shouldn’t we make this for Phoenix or [Auto Club Speedway]?’ ‘Nah, nah, you’re good.'”

“It wasn’t like I was pushing them to get in the car early. I really, really wanted to make sure. As everyone kind of insisted, health comes first and in this decision-making process, it very much did.

“But that’s when they felt very comfortable with me being back in that race car and I can tell you – I can’t be more excited at being back in that race car.”

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.