There was a David Reutimann sighting in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on July 9. He'd been invisible this season and a non-factor in the previous 17 Sprint Cup races with one top-10, a nondescript ninth at Charlotte. Reutimann had led one lap all season.
But at Kentucky, through a combination of speed, strategy and circumstance, Reutimann was in front for seven laps heading into a pit stop with 11 to go. He was fourth for the final restart with two laps to go and passed Jimmie Johnson on the outside in Turn 4 to finish second.
"If there had been one more lap, I think the No. 00 [Reutimann] was good to go by the No. 18 [winner Kyle Busch], too," Johnson said.
It was the first time this season that Reutimann had raced at the front. He was expected to be a regular top-5 and top-10 runner and be in position to win a race or two. Those prognostications were based upon his convincing 2010 victory at Chicagoland, one of six top-5s and nine top-10s last season. He was statistically better in 2009, 16th in the points with five top-5s and 10 top-10s, but his rain-shortened win at Charlotte didn't gain him the respect that Chicagoland did.
Reutimann had fallen off the map in 2011, finishing out of the top 20 nine times in 17 races. Kentucky delivered hope, encouragement and vitality to Reutimann, teammate Martin Truex Jr. (who doesn't have a top-5 this season) and Michael Waltrip Racing. At the midpoint of the season, they all needed it.
It wasn't just where Reutimann finished; it was how he did it. He started 17th and drove into the top five. He was pitting early in the green-flag stops and it caught him out when Jamie McMurray's engine blew up with 67 to go. Reutimann went a lap down, but was the beneficiary of the "Lucky Dog" and got back on the lead lap. He then drove back to the front with speed that hadn't been available previously.
"We were able to run in the top 10 about all day and when we did get outside the top 10, we were able to drive back up inside it," Reutimann said. "That's what you need to do. You need to be up close. We need to get some longevity in the car to run longer, better, but in the end, we had a good car and we were fast when it mattered."
At Kentucky, MWR and Toyota Racing Development provided Reutimann with a new car, aerodynamically superior to what he'd had previously.
"We knew we were behind, but you just don't make changes overnight," Reutimann explained. "It's a new configuration car, different than we've brought all year.
"Set-up wise [the mechanical grip of the car] we're not all that different than we've been on the mile-and-a-halves in the past. [We're] coming up with things aero-wise. ... It's certainly not a different breed of car than we've had. It's a lot of subtle stuff that seemed to make a difference, [giving us] better numbers in the wind tunnels.
"They say you have common templates, [that] everybody's car is the same. Well, they are not. You have to work harder to get game and that's what our guys have been doing."
Here's the hope for Reutimann: "It [the new aero package] should help us about everywhere we go, I think."
But Reutimann is only cautiously optimistic of what the second half might bring. "I certainly hope it's a turnaround," he said. "It's too early to tell. One race is certainly not a turnaround. It is the first race with this configuration car and I felt we hit on some good things that have helped us in the past."
Reutimann will take second, enjoy it and move on to New Hampshire.
"It's been an awful season for us," he said. "At the end of last year it felt like we were making some gains. This year we haven't had the results we've been looking for. With that being said, it's easy to get upset and down when things aren't running well. The guys [were] trying to figure out why we weren't running well and, hence, we have a better car this weekend.
"I'm not saying that's the answer, the magic bullet, but it's a step in the right direction. It feels great, it feels good. Second is still second, but it's certainly a lot closer than we have been in the last month or so."