Kenseth, Vickers come full circle

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- Matt Kenseth and Brian Vickers are waiting for an interview in a break room at Joe Gibbs Racing when Vickers is asked why they're doing this together.

"He wants to stir things up between us," he says with a laugh as he turns in my direction.

I coyly say that it's not my intention, but since he mentioned it …

"You're really going to bring it up right out of the gate?" Vickers says.

Kenseth and Vickers spend the next half hour tossing out one-liners like they're in a modern-day Abbott and Costello routine as they rush through lunch before the formal portion to the final stop of the recent NASCAR media tour.

NASCAR often makes for the strangest bedfellows, and this is a classic example.

Sit back and enjoy, as I did.

We could start with how in 2003, when Kenseth was the Cup champion for Roush Fenway Racing and Vickers the Nationwide champion for Hendrick Motorsports, they shared a horse-drawn carriage during champion's week in New York City that year.

But that can wait. What makes this such an unlikely pair of teammates -- Kenseth replacing Joey Logano in the No. 20 Cup car at JGR and Vickers running the No. 20 in the Nationwide Series for the organization -- are their 2011 clashes at Martinsville and Phoenix.

Let me refresh. Kenseth was only 14 points behind RFR teammate Carl Edwards with four races remaining. But with fewer than 50 laps remaining at Martinsville he got what he considered a not-so-necessary tight battle from Vickers -- a year removed from being sidelined from his ride at Red Bull Racing with blood clots -- for eighth place.

"After he ran into me 10 times," Kenseth said that day, "I spun him out."

Kenseth later cut a tire and finished 31st, falling 36 points behind Edwards. Two weeks later at Phoenix, trailing by 38 points, Vickers admittedly wrecked Kenseth as payback to end all championship hopes.

That led to a meeting with NASCAR in which Kenseth said Vickers should have been parked for the premeditated act just as Kyle Busch was the previous week at Texas for wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. in a Truck series race. Harsh words were spoken.

Now here they sit, laughing and joking as though they are best friends.

"Get it out of the way," Kenseth says of rehashing 2011.

"We've both been in racing long enough that eventually you're going to run into each other," Vickers says. "The best part about racing, inevitably, you're almost guaranteed to almost start next to each other the following week."

"Ride around in the truck together," Kenseth says of prerace introductions.

"Or sometimes you become teammates," Vickers says with a laugh.

And then it's all behind you. At least you hope it turns out as well as with these two.

"I've done a lot of dumb things in my career," Kenseth says. "That [Martinsville] was obviously one of them. We've both moved past it."

Says Vickers: "That definitely wasn't one of my prouder moments. It's kind of like what happened at the end of last year with Jeff [Gordon] and Clint [Bowyer]. There's usually something else bothering you that leads to it. I just had a lot of frustration with things happening … with being sick, coming back, wanting the year to go better than it was, Red Bull pulling the plug at the last minute."

Kenseth interjects, "You would think after a certain number of years you'd be like, 'OK, I'm so smart. I'll never do anything dumb again.' That's not how racing works."

Now that that's settled, the interview moves to 2003, when both are at the top of their game -- Vickers as the youngest-ever Nationwide champion at 20 and Kenseth a 31-year-old Cup champ.

"Now we probably seem much closer in age than when I was 19 [or 20]," says Vickers, now 29. "A 19-year-old seems a long way from a 25-year-old, much less …"

Kenseth interrupts: "An old married guy?"

Kenseth, 40, jokes that he's 32.

"You're not that much older than me," Vickers says, not indicating whether he believes Kenseth or not.

"Two years," Kenseth says wryly.

The conversation swings to a picture Kenseth has of them in the carriage on that snowy 2003 day in Central Park.

"We didn't hold hands," Vickers says.

And, no, they also didn't cuddle up with a blanket to stay warm.

"Well, not on camera," Kenseth says.

Neither thought they'd be teammates 10 years later. Kenseth never thought he'd leave RFR. Vickers definitely never thought he'd leave HMS, that Nationwide team owner Ricky Hendrick would be killed in a plane crash, that he would develop blood clots that forced him to take most of the 2010 Cup season off, that he'd lose his Cup ride after 2011 and spend most of 2012 traveling Europe.

"And end up at Gibbs sitting next to Matt," he adds. "The worst things in my life have led to the best things. Everybody thinks last year was a horrible year. Yeah, my goal is to win a Cup championship and that wasn't possible.

"But I had a great year running [part time] at Michael Waltrip Racing. I got to race with [crew chief] Rodney Childers, who put together my first go-kart. I got to spend an entire summer in Europe."

He goes on to tell about racing at LeMans, Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps and Mugello.

"I can't even imagine what I was thinking in 2003, where I would be," says Vickers, also running a part-time program for MWR this year after recording five top-10s in eight 2012 Cup events. "I'm sure I was hoping I would have won a Cup championship, I'd still be at Hendrick, Ricky would be the owner and I'd be living in a house in South Charlotte. None of that's the case."

It almost makes Kenseth's life sound bland when you put it that way.

"It is," Kenseth says.

He's not complaining. Kenseth feels blessed to be happily married with three children, to be where he is professionally.

"I honestly wake up every day and am thankful for everything I have going on," Kenseth says.

Team president J.D. Gibbs enters wearing a black shirt with gray plaid, pleated pants. He obviously didn't get the black pants memo like everyone else.

"I don't know what those are," says Kenseth, pointing at the pleats.

"Welcome to 1998," Vickers says.

Gibbs yells at them to stop. They don't.

"Hopefully, you have a jacket that matches," Kenseth says.

Says Gibbs, "Pleats are a sign that you're a real man."

"Old man," Kenseth says.

Gibbs asks how I got this "one-on-one interview."

"Actually, one-on-two," Kenseth says.

Gibbs knows when he's beaten. The conversation turns to travel and how Vickers should take Kenseth to one of his exotic destinations.

"We can go to Wisconsin and go snowmobiling," says Kenseth, a native of Cambridge, Wis.

"What do you think of Riyadh?" asks Vickers, referring to the capital of Saudi Arabia.

"What? Where's that?" Kenseth asks.

"Where do you want to go?" Vickers replies.

"Wisconsin," Kenseth says.

"Have you been out of the country?" Vickers asks.

"Does Mexico and Canada count?" Kenseth says.

"Are you the travel guy that's like, 'When are we going to get home?' " Vickers says.

"Three days. That's the maximum," Kenseth says. "Just like a race weekend. Three days, time to go home."

"I don't know where home is," says Vickers, who resides in Miami.

This goes on and on. It becomes clear these two are polar opposites, but not so much that they won't be great teammates.

"Matt and I can totally go out for a beer and have a good time," Vickers says.

They seem to be having a good time now, and both feel confident they can win another title as they did 10 years ago.

"Again, I've learned the hard way on many occasions that nothing is guaranteed," Vickers says. "But that actually would be very cool."

The interview is about to end. Vickers has a final question.

"Were you really not going to bring up what happened at Martinsville?" he says. "Did you really do it only because I said something?"

Hmmm. He'll never know.