After spending a weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one thing is very clear – Jimmie Johnson is going to be hard to beat for the 2012 Cup title. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the current points leader, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski may be tied with Johnson at three wins to be tops in the sport right now, but no one in the garage area is walking with the swagger of the No. 48 team. The group that puts that car on the track every week knows when they’re good and when they’re bad well before the races start every week, and this weekend showed that they’ve got that feeling back as the sport gets close to Chase time.
Fans who watch the sport regularly ought to remember Stewart getting out of the car after winning Martinsville during the Chase last year. He didn’t say he was going to win the title but he told everyone who would listen that he was going to make it very hard on Carl Edwards to take home the big check at the end of the season. At the same time Edwards was saying all of the right things too. He didn’t lay down by any stretch of the imagination, but looking at Stewart and Edwards after that race, if you didn’t know what the point tally was, you’d have bet money on Stewart winning the title. He made his comments with conviction and you simply knew that he and his team would be incredibly good over the last three races–and they were. Stewart won two of the last three and led the majority of the laps in the third before settling for a mere third-place finish. The confidence of a championship caliber team is palpable at the race track and goes a long way toward making them successful.
That confidence isn’t just limited to the big time drivers in the big leagues, though. If you look at the point standings for the Whelen All-American series at NASCAR local tracks, you’ll see the name Lee Pulliam at the top of the list. Last year Pulliam had a phenomenal season but lost out to Philip Morris, who was even more dominant, especially head-to-head, than Pulliam was. This season Morris is not competing, as of yet, and the result is Pulliam kicking butt and taking names nearly every week. He didn’t start racing this season until May, but has stormed to the top of the national points and drove another nail in the coffin of his pursuers with a maximum point win at Motor Mile Speedway Saturday.
Lance Gatlin, who competes at Lonesome Pine Raceway is laying waste to his competition in a similar fashion, albeit at a single race track. Gatlin has scored nine consecutive wins in the Late Model Division at LPR over the first nine races of the season. The track has a bounty that is up to $450 for anyone who can beat Gatlin fair and square, but he simply dismisses the challengers and keeps on winning. Shelby Stroebel is in a similar boat at Meridian Speedway. Stroebel has not lost a race at Meridian since late last season, taking the checkered flag first no less than 10 times this season.
What each of these drivers possess is unadulterated confidence. Confidence in their team, their equipment, their luck and their abilities. When that confidence is oozing out of every pore of their body, it can deflate those people who are trying to knock them off of the top spot. After Johnson won the Brickyard for the fourth time in his career on Sunday, Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch both commented that Johnson’s car was not in another zip code but was in another COUNTRY on Sunday. Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus were both smiling their Cheshire Cat grins on Sunday, even before the green flag flew. That confidence was not there last season.
They were good but not great. They didn’t make anyone feel like they had no shot at the win if the No. 48 was on their game. That is not the case in 2012. Johnson commented in his post-race interview that he felt as confident as he’d ever felt in the Cup series and he wished the Chase was starting tomorrow. Knaus tried to temper his comments slightly, claiming he felt more confident during the season when Hendrick Motorsports won 16 out of 24 races, but his eyes betrayed him. The twinkle that Knaus gets, when you can tell he knows just how good the equipment is that his team is giving to his driver, is unmistakable, and it is back for the first time in a long time.
The confidence of a dominant team is unmistakable. While race drivers are notoriously confident, often to the point of cockiness, the ones who have the momentum can cause even the best of them to second guess themselves. When a team has that supreme confidence, it can overcome almost anything and usually will lead to a championship. Right now, the No. 48 team is looking like they have that confidence by the truck load.