Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: The Curious Case of Helio Castroneves, David Reutimann & Jenson Button

With the running of the 50th Coca-Cola 600, the biggest weekend of racing has mercifully come to an end… finally. And with Monday’s running of NASCAR’s longest race of the season nearly being a washout as well, another first-time winner wound up getting crowned in victory lane.

David Reutimann embodied the old racing adage of “it’s better to be lucky than good,” surviving on a day when he was bouncing off walls and driving Tony Stewart up them. While some may discredit his first career victory as nothing more than a lucky guess by his crew chief, the win still stands… and the only asterisk involved has to do with the mileage run. The win also stands in good company, too, as Reutimann joined Helio Castroneves and Jenson Button to make up the trio of drivers who all won a marquee event this past weekend in their respective series.

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Full Throttle: Good Strategy vs. Dumb Luck

Moreover, they all had something in common this year besides just having something to prove.

Let’s first start across the pond in Monte Carlo, where the Grand Prix of Monaco had me rousted out of bed at the unseemly hour of 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday. Yes, I know this is a NASCAR website and some of you may have as much interest in Formula 1 as you do cricket. I, however, love all forms of racing and anything fast on four wheels; it could be a Plymouth Roadrunner or a Peugeot Rally Racer – racing is racing, and F1 is still the pinnacle of motorsports worldwide.

Besides, how awesome is that street circuit and tunnel they have in Monaco? The race may have been less than competitive (and not exactly a barnburner as far as the lead being contested), but what was impressive was the fifth win in six races this year by Great Britain’s Button.

Who is Button, you asked, and what might he have in common with the driver of the Aaron’s Dream Machine? The commonality starts with the fact that Button, like Reutimann, is lucky to even have a ride this year at all.

At the end of the 2008 season, Button had completed yet another dismal season driving for Honda. Team Principal Ross Brawn – best known for being intimately involved in Michael Schumacher’s dominating tenure at Ferrari – knew that the failure of Button was the machine, not the man piloting it. Unfortunately, that was of little solace to Honda, who was also affected by a burgeoning worldwide economic crisis and a downturn in the auto industry.

The company announced in December that it would not compete in F1 for the 2009 season, which left Button’s career – which up until that point was closing in on a decade of service with no wins and a best points finish of third in 2004 – swirling in limbo.

But Ross Brawn of Ferrari fame would come to the rescue, buying out the Honda team and supplanting the cars with Mercedes power – precipitating a breakneck program to reengineer the cars to accept the new engines. A few months later, Button is on top of the world and has already amassed a nearly insurmountable lead within the championship standings.

For years, questions surrounded Button’s inability to make a serious stab at being a perennial contender in F1. He had all of the tools he needed, but for whatever reason, it just wasn’t coming together as planned. He was dropped in 2000 from Williams BMW in favor of the mercurial Juan Pablo Montoya. Then, following the 2002 season he was dumped again – this time in favor of then-test driver Fernando Alonso, who would go on to win the 2005 championship.

Button was to drive again for Williams in ’05, but a contractual dispute held him to a Honda contract. The events that followed Button saw him perpetually in the right place at the wrong time – but just barely. Now, and without warning, Button looks like a hero and has been nothing but Schumacher-esque this season – having won all but one race and finishing third in the one that he didn’t.

For once, finally, Button has been the recipient of some good favor, and just in the nick of time.

Following a mid-morning nap and a quick mow of the lawn, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing followed suit. Unfortunately, the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 might as well have been run in Los Alamos, N.M., since it appeared to be part of some government conspiracy this year.

Seriously, I cannot remember a time when there was less media coverage, excitement, or so much as a passing concern over what is still the most prestigious event in auto racing. Nevertheless, the big story for the first time in nearly five years wasn’t Danica Patrick but the return of two-time winner Castroneves to victory lane. It wasn’t so much Castroneves going for his third Indy 500 win, either, since he already earned his greatest triumph just a few weeks earlier in federal court – escaping conviction on millions in tax-evasion charges.

See also
2009 Indy 500 Breakdown: From Zero to Hero for Helio Castroneves

While in many circles today being a tax cheat may earn you a cabinet nomination or elevate you to Secretary of the Treasury, Castroneves was staring down the barrel of over six years in the hole – and the suit he’d be wearing would be missing the white of his familiar Team Penske uniform.

Yet despite the obstacles, Castroneves not only ran but led the final 58 laps to win his third Indianapolis 500. After that, the tears that followed flowed as freely as the rain that was to fall on Lowe’s Motor Speedway just a couple of hours later. It was perhaps one of the most poignant moments in recent motorsports memory, and a scene that will be forever remembered: Castroneves, overcome with emotion, was reduced to a babbling, slobbering pile of goo, hugging his sister who had also faced the loss of her freedom as well.

Winning the biggest race on earth certainly will arouse certain emotions, but going up against the IRS when they want their money – now, that is a bit more daunting than prancing about in a yellow suit in some televised dance-off competition.

Following a half-assed wash job on my 14-year-old Jeep Grand Cherokee – replete with its overstuffed pillowy leather seats that are as comfortable today as they were when it rolled off the assembly line about the same time I was graduating high school – the Coca-Cola 600 was getting underway.

Well, at least the pre-race festivities were. The longest race of the season would have to wait another 15 hours, as would a second first-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series for 2009.

To be fair, it wasn’t as if Reutimann just lucked into winning the Coca-Cola 600. Well, OK, he did, but he was running in the top 15 all afternoon even after bouncing it off the wall in turn 4 early in the going. Following some constructive criticism from Stewart during a red flag for a rain shower, Reutimann kept his nose clean and was able to get his car in position to win.

And by that, I mean he didn’t pit when it looked like it was going to rain again.

Give a call as well to Reutimann’s crew chief Rodney Childers for having the presence of mind to realize that NASCAR has not made a habit of late of going out of its way to complete the full advertised distance of a race (i.e., this year’s Daytona 500). To be fair, it never really did stop raining, proving that Childers had the forethought to look at www.weather.com and deduce that it was not going to stop – and that NASCAR was not going to waste any more time, effort or money on jet fuel to blow water around and make bigger puddles in the infield.

See also
David Reutimann Wins Rain-Shortened 2009 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

So, what exactly does Reutimann have in common with his fellow victors Button and Castroneves this weekend? He doesn’t have a regal sounding accent and might not be Fred Astaire in Nomex; but much like the other two, he had the ultimate form of motivation: Something to prove.

As endearing as the images of Castroneves breaking down, overwhelmed with emotion were, who can forget the scenes of Reutimann pacing around on the verge of a nervous breakdown during go-or-go-home qualifying sessions for the better part of 2007 in his start-up Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota? It was entertaining (if painful) to watch, particularly the eight times that he wasn’t able to muster enough speed to make the show.

Even through 2008, when it was evident that he was the glue that was holding MWR together, uncertainty surrounded Reutimann’s future and what might become of him come 2009. Would there be sponsorship for him at MWR? Was Toyota willing to keep a late-30s driver in the fold, what with their onslaught of younger hotshots in Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brian Vickers and Scott Speed? Would he be the fourth driver for the new team at RCR?

Sometimes, the worst part is the not knowing what’s to come.

It wasn’t until mid-January – about the same time that Button found out that he would have something to do in 2009 and about the same time that Castroneves found out that he might not be doing much for the next decade – that Reutimann knew for certain that he would be running a full slate for the only Cup team he’d ever known.

Since then, we’ve sat back and watched as the veteran’s smart decision to stay put got proven right. Ever since the season got underway, Reutimann has been making hay while the sun has shone, having a top-15 car nearly every weekend and claiming the pole at Texas in April – the same track where his No. 00 Aaron’s machine became the poster child for legitimizing the Car of Tomorrow, caught up in a horrific wreck by former pilot Michael McDowell.

Taking that wreck into consideration and who adorns his hood, there is something to be said for the circumstances surrounding these three drivers and their respective wins this past weekend: all three scored by being damned good.

They got themselves into a position to win, however, by being damned lucky as well.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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