Race Weekend Central

The Cool-Down Lap: Score 1 for the Underdogs, a Breath of Fresh Air Sorely Needed in NASCAR

The opening stages of Saturday night’s (July 10) LifeLock.com 400 appeared to be a lock for another Goliath-style rout. Outside polesitter Jimmie Johnson roared to an early, dominating lead, pacing the first 92 circuits around Chicagoland Speedway. But miscues by the reigning four-time champ – missing pit road during a round of green-flag stops, spinning out on a restart and bad luck in the form of a cut right-front tire for the Lowe’s Chevrolet opened the door and set the tone for…

David Reutimann? NASCAR’s version of “David” – literally – coasted to victory lane in a shocking upset, his 40/1 Vegas odds wowing doubters who’ve grown accustomed to the same old faces collecting trophies this season. It was the lead story in a pleasantly surprising turn of events, a 400-miler dominated by men who have spent the better part of their recent history as second-class citizens.

On this night, they pushed the favorites aside, a long list of underdogs making their case that the Cup Series isn’t always Denny Hamlin and Johnson all the time these days. And with the frustration of declining ratings and attendance mounting, there’s no better time to showcase some other talents fans would like to follow, men whose slumps have caused them to either be criticized or simply ignored by the mass media outlets and television coverage.

Let’s start at the top with the night’s winner, Reutimann. The fourth-year driver has seen more downs than ups during his Michael Waltrip Racing Sprint Cup tenure. Thought to be a Chase contender this year after a strong 2009 that saw the Zephyrhills, Fla. native come close to the NASCAR playoffs, Reutimann’s string of engine failures and wrecks early this spring seemingly doomed that chance before summer began.

However, Saturday night’s surprising performance provided solace for a No. 00 team looking for a breakthrough. Armed with a sharp paint scheme from part-time sponsor Tums, Reutimann masterfully guided his Toyota to victory lane for just the second time in his career.

This win was much different than a maiden victory in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 in 2009. Weather would be no factor Saturday night, as clear skies and a beautiful sunset heralded a pleasant night under the lights for the Chicagoland race’s end. Reutimann started seventh, then held his car in the top five for much of the event, slowly working up to the rear bumper of leader Jeff Gordon, also looking to break a winless streak, on lap 200.

Reutimann led for a lap before ceding the point again to Gordon, beginning an extensive, side-by-side battle between the two. Not giving up, he recoiled and pounced for good on lap 213, leading all but four of the race’s remaining laps and taking a well-deserved victory. The win also moved Reutimann to 15th in the standings, a mere 96 markers from the 12th-place Chase cutoff point and the lone hope for us to have a first-time playoff participant this season.

Carl Edwards, who finished a surprising second on Saturday, has been absent from the “leading lexicon” in 2010. The symbol of the struggles at Roush Fenway Racing, his Aflac Ford was winless in 2009 and thus far in 2010, a devastating slump after capturing nine checkered flags in 2008.

But Edwards’s No. 99 team hit on something Saturday and as light turned to darkness, the Aflac duck began to swim. Edwards doubled his season laps led total from two to four, then charged hard as Reutimann’s handling went south over the final 30 miles. Eventually, he ran out of laps and had to settle for second-best; but that top-five finish, his second of the year, had to feel like a win – it was his best result since a runner-up effort at Pocono in June 2009.

Another driver appearing near the front on Saturday but never entering those victory lane gates is Gordon. Famously falling short late in races this season, Gordon led at the beginning of Chicagoland’s second half, seemingly giftwrapped an 83rd career victory by his teammate. But Reutimann’s car came to life better than Gordon’s No. 24 DuPont Chevy as night settled in, dooming his chances and bolstering Reutimann’s at the finish.

Gordon’s inability to win since nearly securing the championship in 2007 has been shocking. This man is the same driver who won 10, 10, and 13 races in 1996-1998, less than three races only twice from 1993 to 2007, and four championships from 1995-2001. But as the emergence of Johnson has combined with the Car of Tomorrow, Gordon is no longer is an immediate threat to the competition.

Despite being only 103 points behind standings leader Kevin Harvick and a threat for a top five almost every week, those winning ways of the past have all but evaporated. He has taken the checkered flag just once since Charlotte in Oct. 2007 (Texas, April 2009) and remains shut out despite leading 772 circuits so far in 2010. Gordon once drew the ire of fans for his Cup Series dominance, but now even those who pulled against him wouldn’t mind a retro No. 24 return to victory lane. That leaves him the most unlikeliest underdog of the trio, an upset pick and fan favorite to finish first.

Those big dog underdogs Gordon and Edwards shared the spotlight Saturday with some others looking for a rare good run. Polesitter Jamie McMurray kept the No.1 McDonald’s Chevy near the front in the first half of the race. Capitalizing on the Johnson pit-road miscue, McMurray led 72 laps from that point on, passed by the Gordon/Edwards combo but still finishing a solid fifth.

Reutimann’s teammate Martin Truex Jr. ran inside the top five, but his No. 56 Toyota was set up for daylight and faded to an 11th-place finish. Other drivers in need of a good run and who found one Saturday included Clint Bowyer (fourth), Kasey Kahne (sixth), Paul Menard (10th), David Ragan (12th), Matt Kenseth (13th) and AJ Allmendinger (14th).

In comparison, season title contenders had a rough outing in Illinois. Kyle Busch was never a factor and finished 17th, while points leader and last week’s winner Harvick struggled with handling – even before fuel pickup issues sent the No. 29 to the garage and Harvick to a 34th-place finish. Johnson’s problems left him 25th. Hamlin, the trendy title pick of June, has been non-existent of late and finished eighth Saturday. Kurt Busch started deep in the field and never rebounded, battling an ill-handling Dodge to 26th.

This bad luck may not have been a coincidence, however. All of the above drivers are safely within the Chase realm, in position to afford a few bad races since the points are reset in September, anyway. Their all but locked-in status means that the teams can experiment with setups, taking chances they would not dare to if they were in danger of falling out of the top 12.

So while Johnson was dialed in for a sure win early Saturday, the other drivers likely were experimenting with parts, pieces and setups in preparation for the 10-race battle to knock him off that perch. Heck, Harvick so much as said that his team was preparing to play around in the coming races when interviewed minutes before the green flag on TNT.

Whatever the reason, the success of some different names was a breath of fresh air at Chicagoland Speedway Saturday. Whether you enjoyed Reutimann’s victory, Gordon and Edwards’s long-awaited almost trips to victory lane or even Menard’s 10th-place run, the LifeLock.com 400 provided a nice deviation from the normal storylines left to digest after most races.

The 1.5-mile Chicagoland surface, with multiple grooves now worn in, has actually raced itself into a respectable track. These factors, along with discussions about the Chase format and Nationwide Series reform, provide rays of hope that what some have seen as dull racing may just have some life shot back into it yet.

Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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