Reutimann takes asterisk off record
JOLIET, Ill. -- Two months ago David Reutimann stood on pit road at Charlotte Motor Speedway beside a duplicate of the Coca-Cola 600 trophy he won there a year earlier in a rain-shortened event. He joked about how there should be an asterisk beside his name, reminding everyone there is one every time somebody mentions the victory.
Deep down, you got the feeling he wasn't joking.
Deep down Reutimann wanted nothing more than to prove he belonged in Victory Lane just as much as four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson or anybody else, that he wasn't just the driver who got lucky one day.
He can stop wanting. He belongs.
The 40-year-old driver for Michael Waltrip Racing took the lead from Jeff Gordon on Lap 213 of Saturday night's race at Chicagoland Speedway and dominated the final 54 laps for his second career victory.
As he crossed the finish line, his spotter shouted, "Ain't no rain tonight!"
But there was moisture in the air, and more than just from the tears raining down Reutimann's face and the Gatorade shower in Victory Lane.
"We earned this one," Reutimann said. "Nobody gave it to us and that feels pretty good."
The win felt good for a lot of reasons. It was refreshing in a season in which powerhouse organizations Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Penske Racing and Richard Childress Racing had won all but one of 18 races.
It was good to see the raw emotion of a driver hungry to win instead of the almost "aw-shucks-I-did-it-again" reaction from Johnson, Denny Hamlin and the Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle.
Not since pole-sitter Jamie McMurray kissed the grass after winning the opener in Daytona have we seen a more popular win or emotional display.
This one may be even more popular because of how respected Reutimann is among his peers and because they knew the beating he'd taken for stealing the 2009 win at CMS.
If you weren't smiling watching Reutimann mess up his burnout because emotions overtook him, then you would have been when he walked into the media center and asked, "Where do I go?"
The Chase doesn't need fixing, as NASCAR chairman Brian France suggested last week at Daytona.
The sport just needs more wins like this one.
"He is just such a nice person," runner-up Carl Edwards said. "He is the first guy to congratulate me on something and the first guy to apologize if he feels he did something wrong. We all have to hang out with each other every week, but he is the guy you would hang out with if you had an off weekend.
"He is a good guy."
Reutimann also is a legitimate winner. He may even be a legitimate Chase contender now.
What the runaway win lacked in great drama it more than made up for in shaking up the standings with seven races remaining before the playoff field is set. Reutimann moved up two spots to 15th, 96 points out of the 12th and final spot occupied by fourth-place finisher Clint Bowyer.
The race for the points lead also tightened significantly, with Gordon -- who finished third -- moving within 103 points of Kevin Harvick, who finished 34th after developing mechanical problems.
It all sets the stage for an exciting finish to the regular season, but it's tough to imagine anybody more excited than Reutimann was on this spectacular summer night. The burden he's carried for more than a year had at times driven him crazy.
He does a good job of covering it up with a sense of humor that rivals anyone's in the garage. He jokingly called himself "The Franchise" of MWR after the Charlotte win, something his team took to an extreme by putting the words over his car door for a while.
"I've been around for not as many years as most, but I've not seen anybody have to walk around for a year and a half and apologize about winning a race," MWR general manager Ty Norris said. "Everyone sort of like had the asterisk next to that win.
"Tonight was a huge statement."
Not just for Reutimann. It was for all of MWR that has been in the shadow of JGR since that team moved to Toyota and became the manufacturer's centerpiece two years ago.
They're [spotter and crew chief] just like, 'Stay on him, he'll make a mistake.' I was, 'Are you kidding me? He's Jeff Gordon! When is he going to make a mistake?'” -- David Reutimann
But it was especially huge for Reutimann, who didn't get his big break in NASCAR's premier series until an age (37) when many drivers are winding down their careers. There were times when he couldn't imagine being in the same series as Gordon, who made his 600th career start at Chicagoland.
There were many who felt Reutimann couldn't win unless something unusual happened, like rain.
"Yeah, I felt there was a cloud over it," Reutimann said of his first victory. "No pun intended, but a dark cloud hanging over our head with that win. Now I'm just wondering like, 'OK, here you go, just leave me alone.'"
Reutimann won this one, as Gordon said, in a style that "was about as good as it gets." He battled the four-time champion for about 15 laps, going high, low and eventually showing the patience it would take to get around him.
"They're [spotter and crew chief] just like, 'Stay on him, he'll make a mistake,'" Reutimann said. "I was, 'Are you kidding me? He's Jeff Gordon! When is he going to make a mistake?'"
Gordon eventually got loose a couple of times and Reutimann took advantage, leaving not only the competition but all of his demons from the 600 win behind.
His only concern over the closing laps was Edwards, who for the first time all season felt he had a car capable of winning. But the closest the 2008 Cup runner-up got to Reutimann was Victory Lane to shake his hand.
"When you come up with a racecar as good as we did from the shop, it makes life a lot easier," Reutimann said.
And when you leave with a victory that doesn't have an asterisk beside it life is a lot sweeter.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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