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Brian Vickers had a lot of questions when he suddenly found himself in the hospital last year. Doctors discovered blood clots in the driver's left leg and near his lungs, then a hole in his heart.
He was able to overcome those health issues, but found himself facing another big question. And finding the answer to whether he wanted to resume his NASCAR Sprint Cup career wasn't as easy as he expected.
"At first, my focus was on living. And then it immediately turned to racing, and how do I get back in the race car?" the 27-year-old Vickers said. "Then I had to stop and think, do I want to go back in the race car? It seems like a silly question, but when you've gone through all that, you start looking at your whole life from a different perspective."
When Vickers was pondering his racing future, his first thought was that he wanted to come back because of the one goal he hadn't accomplished -- to win a Sprint Cup championship.
"Then I realized it was more than that. If I came back it couldn't just be about that. It had to be about something more," he said. "I came back because I just love racing. I love going fast, I love being in race cars. I love what I do. If I never win a championship, I'll still be happy that I came back. If I do win a championship, I'll be even happier."
Vickers went to the hospital last May after having excruciating pain during a visit to Washington D.C., though he had already experienced some symptoms in the weeks before that before the pain began to grow.
There had been a tingling and loss of feeling in his left hand. On the bicycle rides he took that usually covered 60-70 miles, he was out of breath after only 15 miles.
"Being young and healthy and stubborn, stubborn being probably the most prominent of the three, and a race car driver, you just think these things will go away," Vickers said in a recent interview at Texas Motor Speedway. "A lot of times deep down, we don't want to admit it, but we don't want to go to the hospital because we're afraid we're going to be told we can't race."
Vickers missed the final two-thirds of the Cup season last year with his Red Bull Racing Team after being hospitalized. He was out while being treated for his blood clots and having heart surgery.
The kid who started racing go-karts at age 10 became the youngest national series champion in NASCAR history when he won the 2003 Nationwide title as a 20-year-old in his first full season driving for Hendrick Motorsports.
In his chase for that elusive Cup title, there already has been some tough luck this season. Vickers was involved in four wrecks that weren't his fault in the first eight races and was 28th in points going into the Easter weekend break.
Vickers started his No. 83 Red Bull Toyota a season-best ninth at Talladega, and was still near the front of the pack when he got caught up in an early wreck. There were top-10 finishes at Las Vegas and California, but he also got caught up in early wrecks at Daytona, Phoenix and Bristol.
Still, the most important thing is that he is again doing what he loves after the unexpected health issues last summer.
"I know when he was going through it, I feel like he maximized the opportunity of appreciating his family and his friends, his health, as well as having some down time to go experience things that we don't get the opportunity to when we are racing," former teammate Jeff Gordon said. "I'm sure he's enjoying being here and very appreciative of being behind the wheel of that race car this year."
Vickers made his Cup debut for Hendrick in October 2003, then was teammates as a full-time Cup driver with Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch from 2004-06. He got his first Cup victory in the October 2006 race at Talladega.
After going to Red Bull in 2007, Vickers made his debut with the new team by finishing 10th at California. He won at Michigan in 2009, and made the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship that season. Vickers then only got to drive 11 races last season before going to the hospital.
"It was difficult and challenging, but I truly feel that I walked away a better person, so I'm very thankful for the experience," he said. "I know that sounds weird, but I am. Like it was a much needed break in a long career and hopefully a much longer career moving forward. But I definitely thank God for it because I learned a lot from it."
Vickers said he has a new appreciation "for the moment, and every day." He said he has discovered a balance between understanding and appreciating that life "is not infinite" and to cherish every moment without wasting time. But he also knows there are times not to rush, such as when talking with his grandmother on the phone.
He believes all that has helped make him a better driver. His personality and character translates into how he drives, while his intensity and passion make him even more competitive on the track.
"Glad to see him back. The good thing is the little bit that we've seen on the track, it's like he hasn't missed a beat," Tony Stewart said. "He's one of those guys that he never disappeared when he couldn't drive the car. He was still around a lot. ... He was very upbeat last summer and last fall, as upbeat as you could ask somebody being, probably more so. I thought he handled it real well."