They spent lap after lap dueling with one another, each nosing out front and then falling behind, until David Reutimann finally muscled past Jeff Gordon to seize the lead at Chicagoland Speedway. That's when the four-time series champion bestowed upon the one-time race winner the highest of praise.
"I'll tell you," Gordon radioed to his team, "he's pretty damn good."
He certainly was Saturday night, leading 51 of the final 55 laps -- including the last 32 -- to score a career-defining victory that left many in the Sprint Cup garage area as happy as if they themselves had won. In one evening on the outskirts of Chicago, Reutimann's reputation changed from a driver many whispered was fortunate to claim the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte last year, to a multiple-time winner on NASCAR's premier circuit.
Of course, to many within the industry, it was far from a surprise, even though the driver himself admitted to feeling a little sheepish over the way he earned his first career victory last spring. "I felt like there was a cloud over it, no pun intended, but a dark cloud hanging over our head with that win at the 600," Reutimann said. Not Saturday. Saturday at Chicagoland he unequivocally earned it, outrunning Gordon and Carl Edwards, and showing the kind of racer many believe has been inside that No. 00 car all along.
"I've been around for not as many years as most, but I've probably not seen anyone have to walk around for a year-and-a-half and apologize about winning a race," said Ty Norris, vice president of Michael Waltrip Racing, the team that field's Reutimann's car. "Winning that Coca Cola 600 because of rain, everyone sort of like had the asterisk next to that win. [Saturday night] was a huge statement."
And a popular one, judging by the reaction. The victory had crew chief Rodney Childers almost in tears during a pit-road television interview. "Sorry for being so emotional," he said. "He wanted to win one on his own."
Gordon and Edwards each came to Victory Lane to offer Reutimann congratulations. After enduring a difficult night and emerging from a 45-minute debrief with driver Kyle Busch, the first thing crew chief Dave Rogers wanted to do was go over and shake hands with members of the No. 00 team.
"That's a big deal for them," Rogers said of the victory.
As it is for Reutimann, who finally shakes the yoke of that lone rain-delayed win at Charlotte, but didn't necessarily need a second career victory to burnish his reputation among his peers.
"He's a nice guy," Edwards said. "He's very humble. He's just a nice person. He's the first guy to congratulate you on something, and the first to apologize if he feels like he did something wrong. We all get to hang out with each other every week, but he's the guy you'd hang out with if you had an off weekend. He's a good guy."
Added Gordon: "David is a neat guy. I just know that that win that he had in Charlotte, you know, while he took it, not going to throw away the trophy, earning it the way he earned it [Saturday night] is the way he wants to do it. They've been close at times, just haven't had all the breaks. You know, I think that he just drove a great race and had a good race car. I think he deserves to be congratulated."
Reutimann, true to his self-deprecating nature, seemed humbled by the reaction.
"Generally in the garage area, nobody tells you anything unless you're really screwing up. Then they come over and tell you," he said. "I've been on that end of it. I made Bobby Labonte mad. Who makes Bobby Labonte mad? I did that my rookie year. You know if you're making a guy like him mad, you're probably doing something wrong. I've definitely been on the receiving end of it. It feels really good to hear [praise] like that. Generally as you go along, drivers are not all warm and fuzzy. We're all competitors out there. But to hear people say that, that's pretty special. It's not something I knew."
Norris interjected. "He's self-deprecating," the team VP said, "but he's the only guy I remember walking through the garage and calling himself 'the Franchise.'" That was the nickname Reutimann jokingly bestowed upon himself after one particularly strong run. The moniker took on a life of its own, even appearing above the driver's side window opening in the space usually reserved for his name.
"An inside joke," Reutimann said. He may now be a multiple-race winner on the Sprint Cup tour but, inside, he hasn't changed.