Vickers celebrates 20th birthday in style in Atlanta

It wasn't your average birthday party: Brian Vickers celebrated his 20th birthday on Friday with a pair of top-5 qualifying efforts at Atlanta Motor Speedway. After running second behind Ryan Newman in the first Winston Cup practice, Vickers ...

It wasn't your average birthday party: Brian Vickers celebrated his 20th birthday on Friday with a pair of top-5 qualifying efforts at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

After running second behind Ryan Newman in the first Winston Cup practice, Vickers nailed the fourth fastest time in qualifying and will start on the second row in the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 (Sunday 12:00 noon ET on NBC). He previously qualified fifth for Saturday's Busch Series race.

"It's an awesome track," the Thomasville, N.C. native said after his Winston Cup qualifying effort. "I'm glad to be here at Atlanta. I can't say enough for this entire UAW-Delphi team and for (the Hendricks) Ricky, Rick, and Papa Joe for giving me this opportunity."

It's not his official Winston Cup debut -- Vickers finished 33rd in the #60 car at Lowe's two weeks ago -- but it is his first ride in the Hendrick #25 car that he will drive full time in 2004. Vickers talked to teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon for some advice before his run.

"We have a very similar setup and that helped me a lot to listen to their comments after they qualified," Vickers said. "The main thing was to go out there, hold your line, and cross your fingers."

Vickers managed a faster qualifying time than all three of Hendrick Motorsports teammates. Johnson put up the ninth fastest lap time followed by Gordon (19th) and Terry Labonte, who will start the #5 Chevrolet in the 32nd spot.

Vickers is in his third Busch Series season, but the first with a full-time ride. He has three wins in 2003, including a dramatic first win at Indianapolis Raceway Park in August. Vickers battled side-by-side with Shane Hmiel for several laps before finally passing the pole-sitter for that victory.

He has five top-10 finishes in the past six Busch Series races and leads David Green in the championship standings by 23 points. Just 44 points separate the top five drivers with four races left in the season.

"It feels good, but right now it doesn't matter too much," says Vickers. "I want to be the leader after the most important race - Miami. As many times as the lead has changed recently, I'm not so sure if it's good to have the lead. It almost seems like the leader is jinxed. Maybe we can perform a ceremony to break it."

Vickers will run the final four races of the season in both the Busch Series and Winston Cup Series. The schedules line up at the same tracks each week for the final stretch.

"Some people have questioned the decision to have me run the last four Cup races because we're in the midst of competing for the Busch Series championship," Vickers says. "I think the four races will help me not only in the long run, but in the immediate future, too. I'll get a lot more track time and I think it will help my focus.

"With my time being occupied on the track, there will be less idle time for me to sit around and think about the championship."

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Terry Labonte , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , David Green , Shane Hmiel , Brian Vickers