Three races in, the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings read like a who’s who of stock car racing. Four-time champ Jeff Gordon leads the pack, followed by reigning Nationwide King Clint Bowyer, Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth, fellow Roush Fenway superstar Greg Biffle and…
Nope, that’s not a misprint, folks. The man known by hardcore fans as “Beak” is sticking his nose on the doorstep of contention, flying straight on the radar as one of the sport’s rising stars after a fourth-place finish at Vegas launched him into the spotlight. It’s actually rather appropriate that Reutimann’s best career run is tied to the town where gambling is king – especially once you consider the odds he’d ever get this far in NASCAR’s highest level of competition.
To be honest, people are still scratching their heads as to how Reutimann even got to the finish line this Sunday. A top-five qualifying run on Friday showcased potential of a car that could contend for the win; but by Saturday morning, an engine issue with the camshaft of all the Toyotas left his dream of a second row start on the table of a craps bet gone wrong. Instead, a start from the rear would be Reutimann’s lonely consolation prize, “won” amidst fears all the TRD engines would blow once more.
That type of setback was tough enough to endure; but once the race began, the obstacles would only increase. Charging hard from his 40th starting spot, Reutimann was up to 18th by lap 60 before getting pushed back a second time. Losing oil pressure quickly, a pit stop under caution gave the team a lucky break – a leaky oil tank was discovered which had them on the verge of bad parts and pieces for a second time. But while the find saved the day, the fix it left the No. 00 car at the tail end of the lead lap, forced to wade its way through traffic… again.
Good thing the guy behind the wheel didn’t mind.
“We kind of ran back up through there just one at a time,” said Reutimann of his mindset for the rest of the 427-miler going forward, expressing a calmness that’s in tune with a more mature driving style. Indeed, patience mixed with pit strategy led to the No. 00’s push towards the front of the pack over the final 180 laps of the race. While Reutimann deftly avoided the wreck-fest on the track – nearly wiping out when Aric Almirola wrecked in front of him – new crew chief Rodney Childers got busy putting the No. 00 on the right pit sequence to move up through the pack. Catching the right cautions to make their sequence the right one, he went with a two-tire pit strategy late that capped off Reutimann’s second surge from as far back as 27th. Putting the No. 00 squarely in the top five, it was the Aaron’s Toyota and not the M&M’s one with the fastest car in the race’s final laps, stopped short from making a bid for the win on either fuel mileage or pure speed only after wrecks slowed the late-race pace.
“We had a great car ever since we unloaded,” he added after a chance to reflect on his accomplishments. “It was a blessing today to be able to drive that car.”
Indeed. The weekend was a actually perfect dissection of Reutimann’s career, once you consider the litany of “blessings” which have kept him in Cup despite a series of financial missteps that’s kept his career – unfair as it might be – hanging on life support until the last few weeks.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” he admitted after exiting his car, still flying a tad under the radar aside from the pomp and circumstance of Kyle Busch’s hometown win. “For some of these guys… [Kyle] makes it look like he can just walk out there and finish in the top five.”
“We just kind of hung in there.”
Of course, “hanging in there” has been Reutimann’s mantra for years. Turning 39 today, Reutimann is far from the “young gun” image most sponsors have catered towards this decade, leaving him the perpetual underdog working through the ranks. Age has been nothing but a curse; for even as his talent and potential endure slow but steady growth, Reutimann’s still had to dodge the pink slip almost every step of the way en route to the top.
Consider that in the last two years, he’s shown nothing but steady improvement from February through November – and lost his sponsors both times. The second loss was especially painful, with Reutimann replacing Dale Jarrett with big-money backer UPS in March of 2008 amidst both loads of hype and hope for a long-term deal. But not even six months later, the company jumped ship to 23-year-old David Ragan before Reutimann even had time to get his butt warm in the seat.
Despite that uncertain future, Reutimann closed the year with a pole and four top-10 finishes, including a ninth at Richmond in which he led over 100 laps. Still, it wasn’t enough to produce a full-time sponsor this offseason at Michael Waltrip Racing; until, that is, longtime Nationwide Series backer Aaron’s decided to double their commitment in what turned out to be a last-second decision to save the team.
“I was talking to [Ken] Butler, the CEO [of Aaron’s],” Michael Waltrip said this month about the decision that, in hindsight, may have catapulted his team to the next level. “And I said, ‘Reutimann’s going to win. You watch. And if he wins in somebody else’s car, that’s going to really get on my nerves, because you guys have put us here. We want him to win in your car.’”
After listening to the owner talk, the sponsor ponied up with the paycheck – and Reutimann’s wasted no time making it worth their money. Three top-15 finishes to start the year leave him the role model for an entire organization suddenly showing signs of life in year three.
“For a young organization, I’m really proud of what we’ve done,” he said Sunday. “It feels good to be where we are. You run around here for a couple of years trying to get close to winning one of these things – and we’re a little closer than what we were. The only way you can repay a sponsor like Aaron’s is to get them some good runs, and I think we’re trying to pay back a little bit for what they’ve done to us.”
“If we just keep doing this, knocking on the door, we’ll get ourselves in the right position [to win].”
Somewhere, somehow, somebody’s got to tell Reutimann to give himself some credit behind the wheel, too. After all, what other 39-year-olds out there in stock cars do you know who not only kept themselves in the game for two plus years without a top-five finish, but have the sponsorship and the future potential to make their breakthrough season just shy of the age of 40?
Over in the distance, UPS must be more than a little awestruck after their split second decision to split from Reutimann before the getting got good. Surely, they’ll have their day in the sun with Ragan, too; it’s not a matter of if their man will win, but when.
It’s just that before he does, they might have to see Reutimann score one for the old guys first. And who would have expected that?