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NASCAR’s Brian Vickers eager to race after heart surgery

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Brian Vickers is eager to get back on the racetrack and prove to everyone he still has what it takes to win Sprint Cup races following emergency open heart surgery last month.

“Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated,” Vickers said Tuesday during NASCAR’s annual media week. “I am still kicking.”

Vickers will miss the first two Cup races as part of his recovery process, but has been given a clean bill of health to begin racing March 8 at Las Vegas. He will drive the No. 55 Aaron’s Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Vickers said doctors told him that three months will be more than enough time for his chest to heal after they were forced to crack open his sternum on Dec. 15 to repair a hole in his heart for a second time.

“I feel great,” said Vickers, a three-time Sprint Cup Series winner who had nine top-10 finishes last season and finished 22nd in the final standings.

The December setback was the third major health scare for Vickers since 2010.

Five years ago he underwent a pair of procedures — one to close a hole in his heart and another to insert a stent into a vein in his left leg. He missed 25 races during the 2010 season. He would miss an additional five races in 2013 after being placed on blood thinners to treat a blood clot in his right calf.

Vickers said the latest procedure was the most traumatic and the toughest to recover from, calling it “painful and extreme.” He briefly contemplated retiring from racing.

“I have had to deal with a lot of these emotions and thoughts several times now,” Vickers said. “Could I ever race again and, if I could, would I want to? … There was times where I was like, ‘somebody is trying to tell me something.'”

But Vickers said he is driven to win a Sprint Cup championship, and doesn’t want to look back later in life in regret passing up a chance to reach that goal.

Vickers took over as a full-time driver for Michael Waltrip Racing last year after sharing a seat with Mark Martin in 2012 and most of 2013. His only win in 58 races with MWR came at New Hampshire in 2013.

Vickers’ toughness has resonated with the man who writes his checks.

“Not a lot of people have gone through what that young man has gone through,” Waltrip said. “His determination and his desire to be a champion in the Sprint Cup series is something that motivates our whole team.”

Vickers’ latest heart issue came in December when he became ill on the way to a photo shoot. He wound up at Carolinas Medical Center where doctors rushed him into surgery to repair the hole in his heart after his body rejected his artificial patch that was initially used in 2010.

At the time, the 31-year-old Vickers was told he may never race again.

“It was a pretty traumatic event going through that,” Vickers said. “It was the worst of all the medical procedures I have had to face.”

Through it all, Vickers hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

He sat on stage Tuesday joking with teammate Clint Bowyer about how doctors replaced his heart with that of a lion.

“Yeah, it’s way stronger,” Bowyer cracked.

Waltrip will fill in for Vickers at the Daytona 500, while Brett Moffitt will race the second week at Atlanta.

After that, it’s all Vickers.

He said he has been training feverishly to get healthy. He swam two miles in the pool over the weekend.

He’s primarily focused on strengthening his chest.

“There was a lot of uncertainty going into the surgery,” Vickers said. “Unfortunately I have had to hear that you’ll never go racing again too many times in my life. But I’ve been able to get past that.”

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