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David Reutimann enters Daytona 500 as a NASCAR Sprint Cup late bloomer

Zephyrhills native David Reutimann is entering his Sprint Cup prime not far removed from worrying his checks would bounce and sleeping at truck stops to avoid hotel expenses.

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Zephyrhills native David Reutimann is entering his Sprint Cup prime not far removed from worrying his checks would bounce and sleeping at truck stops to avoid hotel expenses.

DAYTONA BEACH

For young NASCAR drivers, the future seems to go on forever. They have time, they have talent, and best of all, they have wealthy sponsors underwriting their dreams.

For the NASCAR legends, the past is never far away. They have memories, they have millions, and to top it off, they have their place in history secured.

And for David Reutimann, there is today. This moment, this race, this season.

You see, in some ways, Reutimann is without peer in the NASCAR garage. He is not one of the baby-faced wonders, and he is not one of the instantly identifiable faces. He is older than Tony Stewart, yet has fewer career Sprint Cup starts than David Ragan. He is a man caught between coming and going, and that seems to suit him just fine.

The native of Zephyrhills spent more than a decade banging around anonymous tracks in homemade cars, and he didn't get a full-time ride in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series until his late 30s. He is 40 now — only three drivers among the top 30 in the Cup standings were older last season — and yet his career is still in its infancy.

"In reality, nobody ever gave me a shot to make it this far, period," Reutimann said. "So I'm just going to go as hard as I can for as long as I can, and as long as I can do that, and as long we do all right, somebody will want me somewhere."

In an era of young stars and younger phenoms, Reutimann is a throwback, a guy having his greatest success at an unusual age.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 36, but he is seven years removed from his best seasons. Reutimann, meanwhile, finished ahead of Earnhardt in the Cup standings in 2009 and '10. Jeff Gordon is 39, and his best seasons were more than a dozen years ago. Reutimann, meanwhile, has won more races than Gordon the past two years.

In other words, Reutimann's prime is coming at an age when others seem to be in decline. Granted, a dozen other factors could be at play. Maybe it has to do with cars and teams, even if Earnhardt and Gordon do not lack for anything at Hendrick Motorsports. Maybe it's just fortune and circumstance. Or maybe Reutimann is just too stubborn to know better.

"When you've been broke as long as I've been, and you (compare me) to a kid who's 18 years old? There's no way the kid who is 18 wants it more than I do. I've wanted this my entire life, and I've worked hard for it," Reutimann said. "The kid has probably worked hard, but he hasn't worked as hard for as long as I have.

"I don't want to go back to the other side of the fence. I want to stay here as long as I can, and I'm prepared to do whatever I can to keep doing that. In the end, when we're in the car, there's no age, and everybody is the same size. That's the equalizer."

For Reutimann, an equal playing field is all he has ever sought. This is a guy who used to write a check for his tires on Saturday and then hustle to the bank on Monday morning to deposit his weekend winnings before the check bounced.

He would go to tracks with an all-volunteer team, and they would sleep seven to a hotel room to save money. And when they didn't even have that much money, they would sleep at rest stops on the drive home.

Reutimann was 32 by the time Joe Nemechek gave him his first break in a Nationwide series car.

"At that time, we were on our game as far as having cars winning races," Nemechek said, "and so he jumped into some good cars and ran well, and it started his career. He was racing with nothing for a long time, and I have a lot of respect for that. You can tell, he's not out there tearing cars up for no reason and doing crazy stuff. The opportunity definitely means more to him."

Reutimann has now put in three full seasons as a driver for Michael Waltrip Racing, and he seems to be on the cusp of breaking through. He has finished 22, 16 and 18 in the Cup standings, and is one of seven drivers to have won races each of the past two seasons.

At this point, the only thing holding him back from greater fame is his failure to qualify for the Chase for the Championship. And the only thing keeping him out of the Chase is greater consistency. He had nine finishes in the top 10 last season, but he had 11 outside of the top 20.

Already he has come further than most would have imagined just a few years ago. He has raced alongside the sport's biggest names, and he has beaten them to the flag more than once. He has become a contemporary, even if his background lacks the same pedigree.

It was those years on dirt tracks that brought him to Daytona International Speedway today, and Reutimann seems happy with the journey.

"I used to go to races I really couldn't afford to go to. That was my life. I did it every weekend, and I didn't care because I was racing," Reutimann said. "If I hadn't gotten the opportunity I got, I'd still be operating that way today."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

David Reutimann enters Daytona 500 as a NASCAR Sprint Cup late bloomer 02/10/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 3:56pm]

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