TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) – Jeff and Jimmie, Brian and Ricky. They were the Hendrick Motorsports entourage – NASCAR’s very own version of the Rat Pack.

But people change, things happen and friendships often fade.

And after Brian Vickers stole his first career Nextel Cup victory Sunday by spinning Jimmie Johnson into leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap at Talladega Superspeedway, things might never be the same.

There were already cracks in the foundation, and Vicker’s gaffe possibly caused the whole structure to crumble.

“He’s doing a great job of isolating himself,” an angry Johnson said after the race. “I don’t think he meant to do it, but he did it. He shouldn’t even think about putting any of us in that situation. It’s ridiculous.”

Pretty harsh words for a good friend.

Along with Casey Mears, these guys were definitely “boys” – the NASCAR in-crowd who showed up together on the lake, in New York City nightclubs and courtside at NBA games. But things began to change shortly after Ricky Hendrick was killed in a 2004 plane accident. They all took it hard, especially Vickers, who was extremely close to Ricky and owed much of his success to his good buddy.

It was Ricky who hand-picked Vickers to join the Hendrick fold, persuading his father to put him in a Busch Series ride that Vickers drove to the championship. Then he pushed his father to move Vickers into the Cup series in the No. 25 Chevrolet, the team Ricky was running.

But in the two years since his death, it’s quite possible that Vickers has struggled with the burden of fulfilling the expectations of his late friend. While Johnson and Jeff Gordon were racing off into championship contention, Vickers never found the same success.

He was the low man on the Hendrick totem pole, the weak link in a rock-solid structure.

So he asked team owner Rick Hendrick if he could leave. It wasn’t an easy decision – the Hendricks are like a second family to Vickers – but he wanted a fresh start and he wanted out from the shadows of his superstar friends. Team Red Bull offered him that opportunity in a new Toyota team, and Hendrick gave Vickers his blessing while tabbing Mears to replace him.

“Brian has been like a part of the family, and that’s been both good and bad for both Brian and I,” Hendrick said this summer. “I think it’s made it hard for me to talk to Brian and treat Brian like just another driver. But at the same time I want what’s best for Brian.

“It’s been difficult because Brian and Ricky were close. But Ricky and Casey were close. So this deal is almost like one of my children is going on to do something else, and I am getting one of my children back.”

So the stage was set for everyone to move on at the end of this season, but the friendships were supposed to remain intact.

Only signs of a rift appeared at the start of the Chase for the championship last month in New Hampshire. Three of the four Hendrick drivers were eligible to race for the title, and Vickers was the odd man out.

But Vickers had no intention of rolling over for the final 10 races of the season, and proved it in that first event by racing Gordon hard for several late laps. Gordon didn’t appreciate it at all, and Vickers – who lives in the same Charlotte high-rise as Gordon – was eventually ordered to get out of his way.

“It’s my teammate, but he’s not my teammate. He’s moving on next year,” Gordon explained. “He wants to win races, he wants to drive hard and I can’t blame him for wanting to do that. I raced him harder than he wanted me to race him earlier in the race and I can give all the reasons and excuses, but it doesn’t do any good.

“I think that right now he’s in a tough position. He’s a guy who is moving on to a new team; he hasn’t had an opportunity to win races like the other guys at Hendrick Motorsports. He wants it bad and he’s driving hard. I think that was just a little bit of a lapse in judgment, but it was also him getting back at me because I raced him hard earlier in the race.

“It’s not a guy that’s out there trying to help you win a championship.”

Ouch. Sounds like someone won’t be borrowing a cup of sugar anytime soon.

Then came word last week that Vickers had been locked out of the driver meetings at Hendrick. Now he’d been totally excluded from the club.

“As we all know, there are few secrets in this sport,” Johnson explained. “To have someone that is leaving and going to another race team involved with some of the detailed conversations about some of the cars and technology, wouldn’t be smart on behalf of Hendrick Motorsports.”

It all boiled over on Sunday, when Johnson was racing his way back into title contention. Junior was leading, Johnson was second and Vickers was third, and the only way Johnson was going to win that race was with help from his outcast teammate.

But Vickers wanted to be a team player, and was willing to push Johnson to the win. But it all blew up when he ran into the back of Johnson to send him spinning into Earnhardt. The two leaders wrecked and Vickers drove on by for the victory.

Johnson was livid and Gordon was flabbergasted.

Vickers was apologetic. It was an accident after all, but a win is a win and it was his first and he happily accepted it.

Now he needs to work on gaining a little forgiveness, which Vickers thinks will come.

“We have been friends a long time, we are friends for a reason – not because of what happens here, we are friends elsewhere,” Vickers said. “Jimmie is a great person, he is a very mature man and I am sure when the time is right, we will have our opportunity to work things out.

“Relationships are always tested and they go up and down.”

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