Of all the places David Reutimann could have gone following his breakthrough Busch Series win Saturday at Memphis Motorsports Park, he had no choice but to go to the one that would sting the most.
Little did he know that the sting from failing to qualify for Sunday's Nextel Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway would be replaced by the sting of champagne. That, though, is exactly what happened when team owner Michael Waltrip's plane landed at Tara Field, located next to the track.
Reutimann got off the plane and was greeted by an executive from sponsor Aaron's Rents and the executive's wife, and the driver was touched by the gesture.
He didn't see what was about to transpire, however.
"I got out and walked up to him, we started talking and all of the sudden he backed away real quick," Reutimann said Sunday at AMS. "Then it sounded like a herd of cattle coming my way -- I turned to see my entire Cup team running at me and they had somehow secured bottles of champagne. For my Cup guys that's not much of a stretch, I guess. They pretty much doused me on the runway.
"It was pretty neat to get off the plane after having such a great day in Memphis and then to have all my Cup guys there to see me. After having such a rough start to the weekend [failing to qualify on Friday night for the Cup race] -- it was really cool. They made me a sign and everything -- I won't tell you what the sign said. It was pretty neat and it's something that I'll always remember -- it really caught me by surprise."
The race itself was something of a surprise. Or something of a disaster, depending on your perspective. With a staggering 25 caution flags, it was a test of endurance that Reutimann conquered by spending most of the day at the front of the field and largely out of harm's way.
Still, he had to hold onto the lead on restart after restart and that started working on his nerves
"You can never get a rhythm going. The team would ask me, 'How is your car?' I told them, 'I guess it's OK -- if we could run more than five laps at a time I could tell you,'" said the 37-year-old Reutimann, who needed 63 Busch starts to get his first win.
"It's just one of those races that you have every so often where you're amazed at the amount of yellows. After a while you just can't believe it and then at the end it gets frustrating.
"When we went into the green-white-checkered -- I don't even want to go there with you guys on that -- it was an emotional time already and I didn't even cue the microphone, but I was in the car yelling and bouncing around. You don't want that stuff when you have a half-straightaway lead and you know that all you have to do is make it to the white flag.
"Then all you have to do is make it around one more lap and a tidal wave or an earthquake could come at any moment and the race would be over right there. It just felt like we couldn't get there. But Mike Bliss ran me clean and really everybody that I raced around all day ran me real clean. When I got back in the pack some I thought I might be a perfect candidate for a yellow, but it turned out for the better and that was a blessing."
The win highlighted what's been a rewarding month for the Florida native. Prior to the race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, it was announced he'd take over for Dale Jarrett in Michael Waltrip Racing's No. 44 Toyota after Jarrett runs the first five races in 2008.
At one point considered a candidate to join Richard Childress Racing if RCR added a fourth Cup team, Reutimann instead locked down a situation where he'll be running the full schedule in both series next year.
"It's not a pleasant situation to be in -- it's nice to have things all signed up and done. There are a lot of drivers who I feel are pretty good that are out there looking for rides," Reutimann said. "To be secure and know what my future is, at least short term -- I feel really good about that. Hopefully a lot of those guys will land on their feet and get with a good organization where they can excel. I really feel for them because it hasn't been that long ago that I was in that same situation."
When it was all said and done – and the cars had finally stopped crashing at Memphis – Reutimann could celebrate the fact he'd now won in the Busch Series to go along with his previous win in the Craftsman Truck Series.
He said the feeling was remarkably similar.
"I felt lighter all of the sudden -- like someone had taken all this weight off you and you could breathe again," Reutimann said. "I could jump around in victory lane and really my biggest concern in my life at that point was how long of a burnout I was going to do. It's great to be in that time and I wish I could be in that moment more often.
"But there's always pressure and I put a lot of pressure on myself. I'm not going to lie, it felt great to stand out [first in Victory Lane and then at the airport] and get sprayed with the beer and champagne later on -- it was pretty amazing."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.