Brian Vickers leaned toward the microphone at Auto Club Speedway on Friday and told reporters: "I'm glad I made it to the stage this time in a fire suit."
It was a rueful reference to one year ago, when Vickers announced at the Fontana track that he was stepping away from NASCAR Sprint Cup racing because of a recurrence of blood clots in his system.
But a recovered Vickers is back this year as a part-time substitute for three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who injured his back in a preseason accident while riding an all-terrain vehicle.
Vickers will drive Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet in Sunday's Auto Club 400. Vickers also filled in for Stewart in the season-opening Daytona 500 (finishing 26th) and two weeks ago in Las Vegas (36th).
"I've never been the kind of guy to give up . . . but I certainly didn't think I would be sitting here a year later," Vickers said before he qualified 24th in the 39-car field for Sunday's race.
"I ended up back in a great car — not the circumstances I wanted to get here — but that opportunity did present itself and I was able to jump on it. For that I'm very thankful."
Austin Dillon set a track qualifying record to win the pole position for Sunday's race with a lap of 188.482 mph on the two-mile Fontana speedway. The record of 188.245 mph was set by Kyle Busch in 2005.
Kevin Harvick qualified second, Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin was third and Ryan Newman will start fourth.
During qualifying and practice, many drivers were reaching 208 mph as they came off the front straightaway and entered the first turn of the D-shaped Fontana oval.
Vickers, 33, has three career Cup victories in 320 starts. His last win came at New Hampshire in 2013.
He has struggled with the clotting problem for several years. In 2010, he also had an artificial patch inserted to fix a hole in his heart, and in late 2014 he underwent surgery again because his body was rejecting the patch.
Through it all Vickers has been helping raise awareness for those with blood-clotting problems. "It's an under-diagnosed issue and an under-thought-about issue," he said.
Vickers said he'll substitute for Stewart again at the next Cup race April 3 in Martinsville, Va., and "then we are figuring out everything from there" in terms of whether he'll fill in again.
It's unknown when the 44-year-old Stewart, who has said this is his final Cup season, will be able to race again for his Stewart-Haas Racing team.
"Everyone is really just kind of waiting to see how Tony shakes out," Vickers said. "As much as I want to race this car as long as I can . . . I really want to see Tony back in it. I have been in his shoes. I know exactly what it's like.
"I'm honored to race [Stewart's car] as long as I need to and as long as I can," Vickers added, "but I'm happy to turn the keys back over as soon as he's ready."