David Reutimann can fool you.

On the surface, he appears laconic, reserved. By reputation, he's a pessimist.

Reutimann would love to feel excited about his start to the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. He rode a career-best fourth-place finish last Sunday at Las Vegas to fifth place in the Cup championship standings, another high-water mark.

More surprising, he's allowing himself to enjoy it - at least to some extent.

Though Reutimann is confident in his own ability, optimism doesn't come easy for a driver who clawed his way up to NASCAR's highest level at an age when some of his peers already were contemplating retirement. Reutimann turned 39 on Monday.

He owes much of what he has learned to his father, Buzzie Reutimann, himself a short-track racer of considerable renown.

"I've always been taught from my father that when you walk in the pit gate, you should feel like the best guy there, but nobody necessarily has to feel that," Reutimann said Friday before Cup practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "Confidence-wise, I think I've been confident to know that I could do the job if I could just get in the right situation.

"Right now from what I'm seeing, you want to be excited, but at the same time you don't, because there's a long way to go, and we are only a couple races in. You want to know it's for real, and you want to know it's consistent and you want to be able to feel that."

Reutimann finished 22nd in the final standings last year. To a notable degree, his early-season improvement mirrors that of Michael Waltrip Racing, which fields the #00 Toyotas Reutimann drives. Owner-driver Michael Waltrip is twelfth in points through the first three events of the season.

Reutimann has come a long way for a driver with an uncertain future two years ago, while MWR was struggling as a start-up. He now has a full-time ride with a full-time sponsor (Aaron's) and early-season performance to match the opportunity.

"I have a sponsor that believes in me right now, and that feels good," said Reutimann, who ran all 36 races for the first time last year after failing to qualify for eight events in 2007. "I'm going to try to produce for them, because they took a gamble on me, and I want to hopefully help it to pay off for them."

That doesn't mean Reutimann can't find something to worry about. That's just his nature.

"I m pretty good at finding stuff to worry about, as a rule," he admitted. "You quit worrying about one thing and replace it with another. I constantly worry about things - running well, qualifying well and all those things that come down the pipe there.

"I think I'm a little more at ease. I definitely feel better at the racetrack. I feel better about what's going on. I feel pretty good about what I'm seeing and the product we're producing and I'm having a lot of fun right now.

"Honestly, I can't say since I've been in the Cup series that I've had much of that. I think when you're having fun and things are clicking, even if you have a bad race, the key is to keep that positive attitude in everything you do, and it will carry over to your guys. That is what I'm experiencing right now, and I'm enjoying that side of life quite a bit right now."

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News