By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
HAMPTON, Ga. -- You might want to clip and save the current NASCAR standings from your favorite Web site or publication for posterity.
For history -- or maybe for "Ripley's Believe It Or Not."
Consider this: After the first three races of the season, three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson sits 19th in the standings coming into Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
And then there's Dale Earnhardt Jr., sitting a distant 29th in the points, nearly 200 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate and Cup series points leader Jeff Gordon.
Meanwhile, two surprising interlopers have unexpectedly cracked the top 12. They're typically relegated to somewhere around 30th place or worse in the standings -- certainly not fifth and 12th place, respectively.
But that's exactly where David Reutimann and his boss, Michael Waltrip, sit heading into this weekend's race at the track that is considered NASCAR's fastest.
Pinch us, we're all dreaming, right? Reutimann, and especially Waltrip, ranked higher than Johnson and Junior?
Yep, and they're also ranked higher than many others, too, including Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Brian Vickers, Jeff Burton, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman and Mark Martin.
As much as I want to bust out laughing, it's no joke. Rather, it's a dose of in-your-face reality that Michael Waltrip Racing has gone from also-ran to a potential contending team.
Need more convincing? Reutimann comes into Atlanta as the highest-ranked Toyota driver -- even higher than Kyle Busch, winner last week at Las Vegas and winner of the spring Cup race at AMS last season.
And, by adding Waltrip to the mix, MWR collectively is ranked higher than the entire Joe Gibbs Racing driver lineup, the de facto sword carrier for Toyota up to now.
Suddenly, the guy who plays the foolish ad pitchman on TV when he's not driving a race car is looking a lot more serious and businesslike, given how well he and his teammate have performed in the first three races.
"We're doing some good things," Waltrip said. "Our cars are definitely faster. One thing that I went around the shop this week and told the guys, I said, 'I appreciate you guys and what you're building.'"
The question is whether Waltrip and Reutimann will be able to sustain what they've started and ride it through the whole season. With 33 races still left, that's a lot to ask for, but right now they appreciate what they've earned thus far.
"(Success) just makes your life easier," Waltrip said. "You have confidence that if you can make the right adjustments and tune on your car properly, you can go up and run in the top five. I'm very realistic. (In the past) we thought if we could get out of here with a top-20, it would be a successful day. Now we're looking at top-10s, and that's because our cars have gotten that much better."
Reutimann is without question the biggest surprise of the young season thus far. He's enjoying his time in the spotlight.
The difference this year, he said, is that "if you have a bad race, being able to say that we still have a good product and we can bounce back, where in the past I haven't felt that way at all. (In previous seasons) I felt like if we had a bad race, then the next week we were probably going to have another bad one. That was the way it was at one time. It's not like that anymore. The amount of enthusiasm that the guys are showing in the shop is something like I've never seen, and the product they're building is second to none right now."
And to think that going into the season, there was a great deal of uncertainty whether he'd be able to race the entire year because of a lack of sponsorship -- until Atlanta-based Aaron's Rent-A-Center stepped up its financial commitment.
"We've had a good season, for sure, considering the way our seasons have gone in the past," Reutimann said. "Michael Waltrip Racing and everybody there has done a tremendous job, and (it really helps) having Aaron's on board this year for a full-year sponsorship, which is something we didn't have at the beginning of the year.
"Our organization is doing a great job and we're running well. We just need to continue doing those same things."
Reutimann's reputation has been that he's a driver ready to break out. He started to show significant progress late last season, and he definitely has picked up where he left off.
"I knew that the work ethic was there and the want-to was there, but sometimes that's just not enough," he said. "There were definitely times when you were wondering if it was going to fly or not, and I needed to think about maybe doing something different. I never wanted to do something different with anybody else. I thought there might have come a point when I wouldn't have a choice, but again about the midpoint of last year we started to turn a corner and I got more relaxed and I knew it would be OK."
Besides the overall improvement for both teams at MWR, Reutimann's confidence is higher than it ever has been, further contributing to his strong start.
"I've always been taught from my father that when you walk in the pit gate, you should feel like the best guy there," Reutimann said. "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."
Yet at the same time, Reutimann is taking the things that have happened thus far this season in stride.
"A couple races doesn't mean anything at this point," he said. "If we make the Chase and win the championship, then I may want to stand up and say, 'Thanks to all you guys who didn't believe in me.' But we're not to that point at all yet. It does feel good, and it also feels good to be able to go out there and have good races.
"I used to hear people say, 'He's never going to run good or he's never going to do this or he's never going to do that.' I just thought maybe they were right, but I don't think that. The immediate guys that I have around me don't, so I'm going to keep on going. The funny thing about it is that those same people that say bad things about you are the same ones that want to come up and give you praise at the same time."