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Two of a Kind: Vickers, McGrew Again Making Noise

 

Like any new job, or first year of school, there’s an adjustment period, or “feeling out” process, necessary to get one steered in the right direction and establish a level of comfort.  For Brian Vickers, that’s exactly what his rookie term in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series was like.

“I learned a lot about racing, life and how to compete at the NEXTEL Cup Series level,” Vickers said of his rookie campaign.  “Every week was something new, and at times we ran well, but at times we struggled.  I learned both what not to do and what to do.  Good or bad, I’m carrying every experience with me moving forward.”

Vickers competed in all 36 NEXTEL Cup events behind the wheel of the No. 25 GMAC/ditech.com Chevrolets in 2004, ending the season with two pole positions, four top-10 finishes and a 25th-place result in the championship standings.

The Thomasville, N.C., native burst onto the scene in 2003 competing for Hendrick Motorsports in the NASCAR Busch Series.  In his first full season, Vickers won three races and claimed the first-ever Busch Series championship for Hendrick, etching his name into the record books as NASCAR’s youngest-ever champion at age 20.

A key component of Vickers’ success in 2003 was Lance McGrew, who maintained his role as Hendrick Motorsports’ Busch Series crew chief during the 2004 season with then-rookie Kyle Busch.

After being separated for a year, Vickers and McGrew were reunited for 2005 as McGrew was named crew chief of the No. 25 NEXTEL Cup team.  Together, the duo has worked hard to rekindle the title-winning success of two years ago.

The 2005 season started slowly for the pair, who recorded three finishes of 30th or worse in the first two months of the season.  But with many of those problems simply a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the program has been gaining momentum ever since.

“I don’t know if Brian and I spending a year apart has been an advantage or disadvantage,” McGrew said.  “I think I’m a better crew chief now than I was in 2003 when Brian and I won the championship.  Last year, he got the experience of running all of the different tracks on the Cup circuit and I was able to get another season under my belt, which was very successful, even though we didn’t win the title in the Busch Series in 2004.

“To be honest, we probably both benefited from another year of experience, even though were weren’t working together.”

So far, it appears the decision to once again pair Vickers and McGrew was a wise one, as the team is enjoying its best season in recent memory.  After the Aug. 7 race at Indianapolis, the No. 25 crew had already recorded four top-fives, six top-10s and one pole position, earned at New Hampshire’s “Magic Mile” in July.

The statistics, with less than two-thirds of the season complete, display marked improvements in every category. In 2004, the GMAC Racing team with Vickers behind the wheel was unable to record a top-five in Cup Series competition.

“It means a lot to be back working with Lance,” said the 21-year-old Vickers.  “There’s a level of communication I have with him that I’ve never had before with a crew chief in my career.  He’s intelligent and we have a good understanding of one another.  There have been a lot of changes made to make this team better.

“We’re trying to build this team for the long haul, one that’s solid and built to win championships—not just races.”

One look inside the Hendrick Motorsports trophy case and it’s easy to understand the organization’s commitment to winning.  Shortly after the conclusion of the 2004 season, a series of moves were made with the hopes of achieving the same success experienced by the Nos. 24 and 48 squads, which operate as one team under one roof.

First, longtime No. 24 team member Brian Whitesell was named manager of the Nos. 5, 25 and 44 NEXTEL Cup teams, a newly created position.  Whitesell, one of the architects of Hendrick’s No. 24 group, was also a principal influence in the development of the No. 48 lineup.

After the personnel changes came the relocation process.  In January 2005, the Nos. 5, 25 and 44 teams moved into a new state-of-the-art, 85,000-square-foot facility, adjacent to the 24/48 building on the Hendrick Motorsports grounds.

“Mr. Hendrick built the new shop, but it’s been the people inside who have been making the difference,” Vickers said.  “The engines have been great, the bodies are flawless, and our pit stops have been awesome.  What else can you ask for?”

All the changes have been great for the teams, but it’s not come without a lot of time and hard work.  Part of the team-building process has consisted of constructing new cars, testing, racing and establishing chemistry amongst a road crew that is almost completely brand new.

“Everyone has been working so hard, but things are starting to jell and we’re beginning to catch up,” McGrew said.  “Every week we continue to improve and that’s encouraging.”

Vickers and McGrew have already proven to be capable of winning a championship, indicated by the 2003 Busch Series campaign.  Now, their efforts and focus have shifted to the NEXTEL Cup Series where it appears they’ve begun to find their stride.

One only knows what’s around the corner for this team. 

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