Confidence bubbles up in a lot of ways. Dale Earnhardt would stroll down pit road, chin up, eyes hidden behind dark glasses, and you just knew he had everything handled, or at least figured he did.
A.J. Foyt was one big clenched fist in his final years as a driver, but look at footage from the days when he won everything in sight and you’ll see a man whose soft Texas drawl suggested that, shoot, winning wasn’t so tough.
Tony Stewart has a pre-race habit of staring at his cars with just the slightest frown, as if the two of them are deciding, together, how they will overcome what the day throws at them.
Jacques Villeneuve has an odd little smile that radiates a strong self-belief, and none of the highs and lows he has seen in his strange, globetrotting career have dimmed it. What the smile says is this: I know what I can do.
We saw it first in the summer of 1994 at a CART event. Villeneuve hadn’t yet won in an Indy car, but his sunny confidence and his raw speed hinted that big things were just around the corner. Over the next 13 months he took the ’94 Rookie of the Year title, the 1995 Indianapolis 500, four other Indy-car races and the ’95 CART championship.
When he joined Formula One in 1996 his seeming nonchalance contrasted so greatly with all the serious paddock faces that his mechanics actually took to calling him “Mr. Smiley.”
Wise observers, however, saw grit behind the grin. After watching Villeneuve win four grands prix as a rookie, English writer Alan Henry declared that Jacques was “intimidated by nobody.” Henry sagely added, “(Michael) Schumacher needs to watch out in 1997.”
Sure enough, Villeneuve won the ’97 World Championship, in the process making his German rival look sloppy and desperate.
Even in the lean, weird years since — he left F-1 after a saga of bad engines, tricky politics and lousy timing and has made spot appearances in everything from LeMans prototypes to NASCAR Trucks — you never got the feeling that Villeneuve had lost faith in himself.
So it was no surprise that when he showed up at Indianapolis Friday, tasked with qualifying for the Brickyard 400 for a Braun Racing team that had no guaranteed starting spot and precious little Sprint Cup depth, Villeneuve looked absolutely untroubled.
“You have to believe you can do it,” he said, shrugging. “If not, there’s no point even trying. You might as well stay at home.”
His Toyota was tight throughout Friday practice, and then twitchy loose — he termed it “a little bit nervous” — in Saturday qualifying. But, with typical flair, he hustled it into the show, barely surviving a tense session that left his Sunday participation in doubt until J.J. Yeley, the final driver to run, bounced his car off the wall.
Never in his life had Villeneuve felt the pressure of not making a race. He’d spent most of his career in divisions with short fields, and much of it in cars with top-line speed.
“This is the closest I’ve been (to being bumped),” he said, still grinning. “It’s stressful.”
Someone in the media scrum around his car asked Villeneuve about showing up for an event like the Brickyard 400 in such an underdog situation. “Why did you come here this week? Why this race?” was how the fellow phrased things.
“Because it’s a great challenge,” Villeneuve replied. “And I love challenges.”
Odd little smile, odd little guy. Big, bold confidence.