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Wednesday, April 20, 2011
These three better pick up the pace

By David Newton
ESPN.com

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- A gentle ocean breeze is blowing through the Spanish moss hanging from the sprawling oak trees. Golf swings are in full bloom on the nearby links, and winter-pale bodies are basking in Mother Nature's glorious oven.

This is a long way from the sound and fury of Talladega Superspeedway or any other NASCAR venue, as the Sprint Cup series takes its usual Easter break.

It's a time to relax.

Recharge.

There are a few drivers who need to recharge as well. When they return next weekend to face the high intensity of Richmond International Raceway, some will be under the gun to turn up their performance for the sake of their careers.

It's called the hot seat.

This isn't to suggest that pink slips are just around the next turn, but in a world of "What have you done for me lately?" there are some who can't afford to stay on their current downward spiral and expect to keep top rides.

There typically are signs when somebody is on the hot seat. They start talking about having a vote of confidence from the organization or about other options they might have.

The latter leads to the first of three drivers currently on NASCAR's hot seat:

•  Brian Vickers: What was he thinking when he said the following on an Atlanta radio station last week?

"I haven't made any decisions yet," Vickers told News/Talk WSB. "I like Red Bull. I've enjoyed my time there as a Red Bull brand. I think I fit the brand and the brand fits me. There's no doubt about that. It is a high-energy, be yourself, love life, extreme athlete, extreme sport kind of brand. And they allow me to do the things that I love to do, and that is great.

"Most importantly, we've got to win races, and I think that is what we both want. And hopefully we can both figure that out together and I can finish my career out at Red Bull. If we can't, then there's other options on the table, and maybe we'll look at those."

That's not the posturing one would expect from someone who is 28th in points, who has only two wins in 227 Cup starts and only one for Red Bull in four-plus seasons.

It almost sounds as though Vickers is positioning himself to look like it was his idea to move on if Red Bull goes in another direction after his deal expires this season. I can tell you his talk of options didn't sit well with the higher-ups in Austria that are looking for a good reason to re-sign the 27-year-old driver.

So far, he's given them few.

And how many options out there are better than Red Bull, where there is a guaranteed sponsor that other organizations don't have? Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing aren't looking for drivers. Joe Gibbs Racing might like to expand to a fourth team, but Carl Edwards would be the top candidate if he could be pried away from RFR.

Any other option would be a lateral move at best.

Vickers' best bargaining tool at the moment is that Red Bull already knows it has to replace Kasey Kahne, who will move to HMS to replace Mark Martin in 2012. No team wants to replace two drivers in one season.

Vickers was a sympathetic figure a year ago when blood clots sidelined him for the last two-thirds of the season and nearly ended his career. He was a feel-good story when he made his return at the Daytona 500.

But if Vickers wants to remain relevant, he'll need to do it on the track.

And stop talking about options.

David Ragan
David Ragan looked like the next big thing in 2008 when he finished 13th in the standings.

•  David Ragan: Not much has gone right for the Roush Fenway driver since 2008 when he finished 13th in points with a career-best 14 top-10s. He's had only seven top-10s and no top-5s in the past 80 races.

Sunday's race at Talladega typified his season. Ragan had a car fast enough to win, but was caught in a Lap 89 wreck for a 39th-place finish that dropped him to 20th in points.

Here's Ragan's dilemma: Although his contract runs beyond this season, RFR's deal with UPS is up. While UPS likes what Ragan does for it off the track, it ultimately will demand performance to match.

That Roush has a rising star such as Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne with the Wood Brothers on its payroll makes a swap simple should UPS decide the 20-year-old is a better fit.

And the irony of it all is that it was Ragan's mistake -- swapping lanes early on the final restart -- that put Bayne in position to win the 500 and put him on the hot seat.

•  Brad Keselowski: Go figure. He looked like the sure thing in 2009, winning a Cup race with a part-time team at Talladega and finishing third in the Nationwide Series stacked with Cup drivers.

That earned him high praise from Rick Hendrick and a fulltime ride at Penske Racing.

Keselowski followed that with a Nationwide title last season and was rewarded with the famous Miller Lite No. 2 car this season.

He was brash. He was controversial.

Expectations were through the roof.

But if you're among those that have classified Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career a disappointment, then you have to be wondering about Keselowski's. He had only two top-10s a year ago and finished 25th in points.

Eight races into this season, he has no top-10s and is 27th. The fact that teammate Kurt Busch in the same equipment is fifth in points with five top-10s doesn't help.

As colorful and entertaining as Keselowski can be, it's hard to imagine Miller Lite staying committed beyond next season to a driver not challenging for a Chase spot.

"We're doing all the right things," Keselowski said after being wrecked out of Sunday's race by Busch. "Sometimes, it doesn't work out."

Meanwhile, the breeze continues to blow through this island plantation.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.