David Reutimann's late-career rise to prominence in Sprint Cup delivers an inspirational message of hope to all those drivers in their late 20s or early 30s who are running in NASCAR's entry-level Whelen Series or the touring Camping World East or West Series.
Reutimann broke the mold of the typical Cup hire exemplified this season by teenager Joey Logano and earlier this decade by 20-somethings Brian Vickers, Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Reutimann was 36 when he got his chance at the big time in stock car racing with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2007.
The son of East Coast short-track legend Buzzie Reutimann, he spent most of his 20s racing Modifieds in his native Florida, then broke into NASCAR's late-model Southeast Series at age 27. He spent five years there, winning three races, not exactly the type of performance that earns you a promotion to one of NASCAR's three national series.
Reutimann had a stopover in the Nationwide Series in 2002 and 2003, running 11 races. At 33, he showed enough potential with a pair of fifths and a sixth in 2003 that Darrell Waltrip hired him for his Toyota team in the Camping World Truck Series.
Finally, a full-time opportunity in a NASCAR national series had arrived. Reutimann had one victory, at Nashville in 2005, in three seasons. He was out of the top 10 in points in the initial two, but was third in 2006.
You're probably wondering why, with his resume, Reutimann got hired by MWR in 2007. You're not alone; it was a big surprise to almost everyone. Darrell had recommended Reutimann to his brother Michael. It helped Reutimann that the pool of experienced Cup drivers was spread thin that winter.
Reutimann had his chance with a first-year manufacturer and team that didn't have any points and had to qualify on time for every race. Reutimann, always a good qualifier, made 26 races in 2007. The team's owner-driver made 14. Dale Jarrett, with the champion's provisional, made 24. Reutimann was the highest finisher in the points on the team, 39th, but that still left him without a guaranteed starting position to start 2008.
No problem. Reutimann responded by driving into the top 35 in points twice, first in the No. 00 that Michael McDowell took over in the sixth race for the retiring Jarrett and then in the No,. 44. Reutimann drove in all 36 races and finished 22nd in the points. He'd become "The Franchise" at MWR.
At 39, Reutimann is still moving up. He finished third at Pocono last Sunday and it boosted him into 11th in the points. Some discount Reutimann's win at Lowe's a couple of weeks ago because he did it on strategy and the rain fell at the right time, but there is no denying his steady competitiveness this season. He started and finished fourth at Las Vegas, and was eighth at Phoenix. Reutimann led 40 laps at Texas in a run to 11th.
Waltrip's organization has come a long way in the past couple of years, and has provided Reutimann with strong equipment. Hiring Cal Wells in 2007 as Executive Vice President of Operations -- the person in charge of running the team on a daily basis -- was a very smart decision. He was a Cup team owner from 2000 to 2006 before a lack of sponsorship put it out of business.
Wells had started PPI in southern California to service the off-road industry, and he ran a championship-winning factory-backed team for Toyota in the 1980s and '90s. He did his own welding in building the tube-frame trucks in the early years and there are those who will tell you that nobody ever did it better.
When Toyota went into CART's IndyCar series in the mid-1990s, Wells moved with his long-time partner. CART was a highly sophisticated technical series and it advanced his understanding of high-speed aerodynamics and mechanical downforce. They have become vital performance areas in the modern Cup series.
Wells beefed up the technical braintrust by hiring Steve Hallam from Formula One's McLaren team as Director of Competition, and moving Nick Hughes from engineering to Technical Director.
Rodney Childers has also played a critical role this season, his first as crew chief for Reutimann. He spent last year with Elliott Sadler at Gillett Evernham (now Richard Petty Motorsports) and was with Scott Riggs at GEM and MB2.
It was inconceivable at the start of 2007 that Reutimann or MWR would have a legitimate chance at making the Chase with 12 races remaining in the regular season. Even with the progress he and the team had made the past two years, Reutimann didn't think they'd be a contender at the beginning of 2009.
"Not really," Reutimann said. "I'm not exactly the most confident guy here. But I knew the potential was there, the way we finished out last year. I was like, 'Man, if we can just do this and do a couple of things a little bit better, I think we might be able to do that or at least be in contention to do the stuff.' Anyway, it's worked out so far.
"We have definitely had some races that we would like to forget, but for the most part it's been a pretty good year and it's been pretty productive, especially if you look back at the previous years and the results we have had compared to last year, there's just no comparison. In the end, I felt like if we did the right things and we were heading in the right direction, I knew the possibility was there."
Reutimann has proven this season that when he has the machine beneath him, he can compete in the top level of American motor racing. The Cup cars are beasts, requiring the control of 800-plus horsepower in a 3,400-pound car without enough tire to support it fully. He's using the experience from running all those years he spent in the minor leagues and taking advantage of his window of opportunity. Reutimann may be an anomaly, enjoying a breakthrough season as he approaches 40, but there are likely others following his same path capable of it, too. They know all they need is the right situation and a car owner who will give them a chance. Reutimann has shown them it's never too late.