CHARLOTTE _ At the age of 26, Brian Vickers appeared to be at the top of his game and in prime health. Racing in NASCAR’s premier series for Team Red Bull Racing, Vickers was struggling in the opening weeks of the season, but things were starting to turn around with a 10th-place finish in Darlington.

That all changed with chest pains and a trip to the emergency room.

While on a trip to Washington D.C., Vickers suffered chest pains in the middle of the night. He said nothing stuck out that could have caused the pain, so he went back to sleep and hoped it would pass. The pain did not subside, instead it worsened. On Tuesday night (May 11), Vickers said the pain was at a “10 for about 30 minutes.” He could take only about five percent breaths, compared it to breaking ribs and said it was “probably the most excruciating pain I’ve ever had.”

“You’re 26, great shape, exercise, eat well, you start having chest pains and you think you’re bullet-proof. You’re a race car driver, you just figure it will go away,” Vickers said.

Finally, Vickers called Dr. Jerry Petty – a regular doctor for the series – who advised him to go to the emergency room for a CT scan. The 26-year-old admitted he believed going to the ER was “overkill,” but heeded the advice. The doctors quickly discovered blood clots in both his lungs and his left leg.

Required to use blood thinners, Vickers was forced to sit out last weekend’s race in Dover and after further tests it was determined he would be forced to miss the remainder of the 2010 season.

“Due to what has happened and due to the blood thinners I’m on, I will be out of the car for a minimum of six months, for the rest of the year,” Vickers said Friday in Charlotte. “If something changes and I can get back in sooner, great, but right now it’s going to be the remainder of the season. As you can imagine, it is killing me – no pun intended.”

Casey Mears climbed behind the wheel of the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota last weekend at Dover and is serving as the replacement driver again this weekend. Team general manager and vice president Jay Frye says it has yet to be determined if Mears will stay in the No. 83 car for the remainder of the year, but said he does not expect any changes, with the possible exception of road courses.

With Vickers on the sidelines, a number of drivers have offered their support and most have questions about the cause of this young man’s condition.

“I think anybody in the garage will do what they need to do to try and help. Everybody is just wanting to know what caused it, why and make sure there is not anything that we’re doing that could be a common thread or anything like that. Anytime something like that happens, you just kind of want to know why.” said Kevin Harvick. “I feel comfortable with my lifestyle and my health. The frequency that we have to go through the NASCAR nurses and physicals and everything we do, it’s very rare that something is not going to pop up. For the most part you really receive a physical at least once a year before you start, probably twice a year. Any time you bump anything on the race track, they’re checking everything before you can even leave, so we go to the doctor more than everyone probably realizes.”

While addressing the media, Vickers admitted he was afraid to contact a doctor in fear he would be forced to sit out a race. For former teammate Jeff Gordon, back issues raised concern about his future in the sport and had the four-time champion worried he may have to take a break from racing.

“The biggest thing is you just hope that they find out what caused it so it doesn’t come back, he gets himself healthy so he can come back and race for a long time,” Gordon said. “My whole thing was, ‘I want to get to a doctor, find out what’s going on, why am I feeling like this?’ If they had told me, ‘Hey, you need surgery tomorrow and you’re going to be out for six months,’ I would have done it in a heartbeat. I don’t like feeling what I feel, but again I’m in a different position in my career and my life than Brian, so I might think about it a little different than he would.”

The overall feeling in the garage is concern for Vickers and sympathy for his situation. While they are fierce competitors each weekend on the track, the community in the garage is very tight-knit. Anytime one of their own has an issue the support is overwhelming.

“I can’t imagine what Brian’s going through,” said Kyle Busch. “It’s pretty scary. You’re living a normal life and boom you feel a pain in the chest, go to the hospital and you’ve got clots. What do you do? You have to fix your health and get back as healthy as you can to get back in a race car or it’s going to keep you out of the race car. It’s unfortunate for him and I’m certainly glad I’m not going through it, but we’re all feeling for him.”

“I truly, truly feel for Brian,” Mark Martin said. “It’s just unbelievable to be in a situation where you can’t drive – I mean, can’t imagine what that’s like to have to deal with, on top of that, being a fit young man. It’s something I don’t understand yet, the condition, I really don’t completely understand. Our (pit)coach Mark Mauldin came over with this same thing over the winter, so we were already in tune with it at the 5 car and at Hendrick Motorsports with what he went through, but he’s not a young man by any means.

“My heart goes out to Brian. I’m glad that he’s okay, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to be knocked out of your seat. It’s our lives, guys; it’s got to be devastating for him. On the other hand, at least he’s healthy to a good degree.”

Said Vickers, “The drivers have been so supportive, and I think that means a lot when you have the thoughts, prayers, appreciation, respect of your peers…Your peers, they’d understand you more so than anyone else. They know what you go through. They see what you do. That means a lot. The drivers have been incredible. The texts, the calls. All the ones that I’m friends with, obviously I speak to on a regular basis – Jeff (Gordon), Jimmie (Johnson), Casey (Mears). But a lot of the guys that I am friends with, but more acquaintances, and even guys, we didn’t have each other’s cell phones, have reached out. And the things they’ve said in the media have been great. It means the world to me.”

Now being forced to sit out the remainder of the season, Vickers hopes to use this time to learn more about how the organization functions from other points of view. He plans to spend time atop the pit box, the spotters’ stand and more time at the shop. While he is clearly upset about his current situation, Vickers is not letting his health get in the way of his positive personality and determination to return at the top of his game.

“I’m feeling two emotions,” Vickers said. “One, I want nothing more to be back in the race car. But at the same time, it’s not my personality to focus on the negative. It’s just not who I am, not who I’ve ever been. I’m going to make the most out of this and it’s the cards I’ve been dealt and I can’t change that right now. I’m gonna take every opportunity I can to be positive through this, to deal with it, to learn more, to be better when I get back in the race car.”

Right now, however, the main focus is relaxing, learning more about how his team functions and getting back to the point where he can compete week-in and week-out for wins come 2011.

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