DAYTONA BEACH — David Reutimann had long imagined the moment.
But when the Zephyrhills native finally won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race, the Coca-Cola 600 on May 25 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, something was a bit off from his mental picture.
"The way we won wasn't how you'd envision it. You don't ever say, 'Man, I dreamt last night I won a rain-shortened event,' " he said, referring to the miserable weather that forced officials to reduce the race to 227 laps instead of 400.
"But it was a huge race."
A huge season, actually.
Reutimann, driving the No. 00 Toyota, had career bests for top-five finishes (five), top 10s (10) and poles (two) to go with that first trophy. The 39-year-old Reutimann, who made his Cup debut with one race in 2005, had never been in the top five before his 2009 run.
"I don't feel like I'm any more established than I was before," he said in the days leading up to Sunday's Daytona 500, the first Sprint Cup race of the season. "I'm the same guy trying to do the same job."
Although he missed qualifying for last season's Chase for the Championship for the top 12 drivers, he finished a career-high 16th in the points standings, which gives him far more stability than ever before. He's one of 35 guaranteed starters and doesn't have to worry about getting into the races based on qualifying times.
"For the first couple years of my career, that was what we had to do week in and week out," he said, "and that was never fun."
And fun on the track is what he has always imagined.
"I just love his passion for racing cars," team owner/driver Michael Waltrip said. "He's the quietest, most unassuming guy in the whole world until you strap him in a car, and then he goes crazy."
It's in his blood. Reutimann's father, "Buzzie," is a racing legend. At 68, he's still going strong at East Bay Raceway Park near Gibsonton, racing cars that his son has helped build.
"My dad has a love and a passion for the sport unlike anybody I've ever seen, and every time you get in a car, you have some of that with you, and it makes you realize how fortunate you are to be able to do what you do," Reutimann said. "You're one of the 43 guys on any given Sunday to go out and do it, so even on a bad day, it's a pretty good gig."
One he plans on making even better. He was in position to qualify for the Chase, sitting in 13th with five races left before the cutoff, only to finish 29th at Pocono on Aug. 3. He couldn't make up the lost ground.
"The year before, we couldn't even dream of getting close to the Chase, and then we were so close and ended up missing it; it was just so disappointing," Reutimann said. "It shows what can happen if you keep your focus and you keep working hard and how quickly things can change in this business. We just need to be a little more consistent this year."
Consistency for him begins in the garage.
For the first time, he will begin a Cup year with the same crew chief, Rodney Childers, as he had the previous year.
"Last year, none of us knew anything about each other," Childers said. "David didn't know anything about me. Fortunately, the two of us, the way we got along and the way we communicated was like we'd already been together."
Childers and Reutimann said the continuity can help everyone, especially when it's time to make adjustments or solve problems on race day. If that happens, it's not hard to imagine the possibilities.
Regardless of how long a race happens to go.
"We expect him to win. We expect him to race for a spot in the Chase," Waltrip said. "He was able to do that in '09, and we know we've built stronger cars for him to compete with this year. He's got another year under his belt racing these cars and understanding what it takes to be successful. … He's a winner, and once he wins three or four more races, that Coca-Cola 600 trophy will be really special to him because it'll be surrounded by a bunch of other ones."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.