Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Updated: February 9, 12:36 PM ET
Another Chase contender for Red Bull?
By David Newton
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Brian Vickers made the NASCAR record books last season, but not the way he hoped.
The driver of Red Bull Racing's No. 83 Toyota finished with the fewest points by a Chase driver in the six-year history of the event and finished last among the 12 drivers.
Not exactly the way you want to be remembered, particularly when you had a spectacular nine-race stretch of finishing 12th or better just to get into the 10-race playoff.
"But we used that as offseason motivation to make sure that doesn't happen again," general manager Jay Frye said. "We worked so hard to get the 83 into the Chase, it was a real learning experience once the Chase started and we saw how the intensity level turned up."
The Chase aside, 2009 was a breakthrough year for Red Bull Racing, or at least for Vickers. By putting a car in the playoff, winning a race and finishing second in poles with six, he gave the third-year organization a sense of legitimacy it didn't have before.
"Now we've just got to take what we learned and capitalize on it," Frye said.
Getting Scott Speed up to speed will be a key. Thrown into the mix a year earlier than originally planned, the former Formula One driver had less-than-stellar statistics: one top-5, one top-10 and an average finish of 29th.
"Last year was a challenge for me, and I like challenges, so it just makes me work harder," said Speed, who finished 35th in points. "But never can a driver lose confidence in himself. The 82 team has studied a lot with our car as well as the 83 over the winter [and] is very prepared for 2010."
Frye hopes so. This admittedly is a big year for Speed.
"It's a huge year for him," Frye said. "We put his feet to the fire to learn on-the-job training in the Cup level last year. This year the mulligan we had is gone."
Speed proved to be fast at times. He just didn't prove to be consistent.
"He'll need that to be able to compete every weekend at a higher level," Frye said. "The form of racing he came from, it's not as much side-by-side as we have in NASCAR. He learned a lot as the season went on.
"We have great expectations, great hope that he can get it done."
With Vickers, it's not what Red Bull hopes he can do but what the team believes he should be doing heading into his seventh full season in Cup.
"Brian is obviously a phenomenal young talent," Frye said. "There are a lot of things we learned, that he learned, about what he needs to do to be prepared to take it to the next level."
One of those things is lead more laps. Despite starting out front six times, Vickers led only 101 laps, less than half of what he did the year before. He also had too many bad finishes, going home 25th or worse 11 times.
And he had only four top-10s, just two more than Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was 25th in points.
"A lot of this stuff, very mathematically it makes sense," Frye said. "If you finish 11th every week, there is not a stat for that, but 11th gets you a lot of places in our sport. If you think about the first 26 races, and say we had six bad ones, if you eliminate half of them you're not in a position of having to fight to make the Chase.
"That doesn't seem hard when you think about it that way."
That's similar to the formula Juan Pablo Montoya used in going from 25th in points in 2008 to eighth in 2009 for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
"They had a plan to get into the Chase and they did it," Frye admitted. "That's one of the things [four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson] has done very well. They really understand the rules and how it works."
The good news for both Red Bull drivers is that the teams have undergone very little change during the offseason other than a few tweaks to pit crews. The best teams typically are the ones that have been together the longest.
"We have worked really hard to get people in the right places, and they are," Frye said. "Going into 2010 we are quite optimistic. We just need to step it up. Going into last season we basically hit our goals, putting a car in the Chase.
"Once we did it was, 'Now what do we do?' Once the Chase started we didn't hit our goals. Not even close. This year we have to be better prepared for that."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.