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David Reutimann has tough night in Coke Zero 400, faces tougher road ahead

DAYTONA BEACH — The car was a mess. Parts were smashed. Parts were missing. And the No. 00 on the passenger side had to be improvised with orange tape.

Yet, when David Reutimann climbed out of the window at the end of the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night, you wondered if he was actually beat up worse.

This is what the Sprint Cup's Chase for the Championship will do to a man. It will tease. Exhilarate. Exhaust. And crush.

The 39-year-old from Zephyrhills is having the season of his life after years of knocking around on lower-profile circuits, and now, exactly halfway through 36 races, the toughest part is just beginning.

Reutimann went into the Coke Zero 400 in 14th place in the Cup standings. That means he has to climb over at least two other drivers in the eight races remaining before the chase begins.

Sounds easy enough, but history tends to disagree. This Daytona race has generally served as the beginning of NASCAR's stretch run, and those who are outside the top 12 cannot afford many hiccups on the way home.

That's what made Saturday night such a heartbreaker for Reutimann. He had a car that could contend. He had, early on, the fastest lap. He had a chance to make up ground on 11th-place Mark Martin, who was knocked out early.

And it all came crashing to an end on the 78th lap.

When Kasey Kahne and David Stremme got together near the wall, it caused a 13-car accident, and Reutimann was one of the hardest hit.

"I guess there were a couple of guys going for the same piece of real estate there," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I tried to stay high because I thought they would spin down off the wall, and the No. 00 got crossed up trying to miss them, and we hit him."

Reutimann fell several laps off the lead after the accident and later blew a tire and went into a wall because of the earlier damage. His car remained in the garage for 28 laps before his crew got it taped together enough to finish.

It continued a remarkably up-and-down run for Reutimann this season. In his past 11 races, he has had four top-10 finishes, including his first victory. He has also had five races in which he finished 26th or worse, including Saturday night's 36th.

The timing could not be worse for Reutimann. This is the time of the season when consistency is imperative. When the best drivers start to find their groove. When hope hits the wall for a lot of drivers.

At this point in the season, a driver can no longer fool his fans. He can not lie to his sponsors. And, truth be told, it's probably harder than ever to convince himself. Any driver not in the immediate vicinity of the top 12 in the points standings after Saturday night's race can pretty much abandon any thoughts of qualifying for the chase.

At least that's what the odds indicate. Very few drivers — fewer than 15 percent — have managed to qualify for the chase if they were not already staking a claim to one of the coveted spots at this point in the season.

In Reutimann's favor, a lot of the drivers who came from the outside were just a handful of points out of contention by now. Kevin Harvick was two points out of position last season, so it wasn't a real stretch to make the chase. Jeff Gordon was 14 points back in 2006, and Jeremy Mayfield (one point) and Carl Edwards (three points) were right on the cusp in 2005.

Reutimann went into the race 12 points behind Juan Pablo Montoya for the final chase position.

For most everyone else, the numbers do not look good. In the chase's five years, only four drivers have staged edge-of-the-seat comebacks in the stretch run. And all those comebacks began right around this time of the season.

The trick is that a driver has to be aggressive but cannot afford too many mishaps. Even if it was not his fault.

The only consolation for Reutimann in the Coke Zero 400 is that a lot of the drivers around him in the standings were caught up in the same accident. Kahne (13th place in the Cup standings), Clint Bowyer (15th), Brian Vickers (17th) and Earnhardt (19th) suffered varying degrees of damage.

Reutimann hung on to the 14th spot, but he is now unofficially 74 points out of 12th. And Jeff Burton has closed the gap behind him in 15th.

Time is growing shorter.

And the miles seem to be getting longer.

David Reutimann has tough night in Coke Zero 400, faces tougher road ahead 07/05/09 [Last modified: Sunday, July 5, 2009 1:49am]

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