HAMPTON, Ga. - A group of reporters stood vigil near the restroom at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Saturday while Todd Bodine was inside. Inquiring minds apparently didn't want to know badly enough to chase him into the last true sanctuary on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, but they stood on the ready with microphones and notepads for the moment Bodine made his dash to the transporter.
"Actually, this is kind of nice," Bodine said of the attention to his recent success in stock car racing. "Running up front sure changes the way people think about you."
Bodine's rousing success as a part-time driver on the NASCAR Busch Series has carried into his full-time job on the senior circuit. Two victories and a fifth-place finish in the past three weeks on the NASCAR Busch Series have given him new confidence for today's main event, the Cracker Barrel 500, (1 p.m., FOX).
"So much of this sport is mental," he said. "You go to these races knowing there's going to be 42 losers and only one winner. When you start to win, you expect to be the guy who wins. You used to come in here and hope to do the best you can. Not now. I expect to win."
After failing to qualify for the Daytona 500 and running 34th at North Carolina Motor Speedway, Bodine revitalized his season - and his career - with success on the Busch Series, a fifth-place run a week ago at Las Vegas and a third-place starting position for today's 500-mile Winston Cup Series race.
Bodine competes on two circuits. Success from one feeds the momentum for the other. Since being unceremoniously bounced from the Winston Cup level in 1998 when a deal between ISM Racing and Tabasco went sour, the youngest of three racing brothers has waited for redemption.
"No doubt that's been on my mind," he said. "I've been told I can't drive; I've been told I didn't know what I was doing; I've been told I was in over my head. I was a fall guy for things that were out of my control. I'd be lying if I said this hasn't been self-gratifying."
Bodine was hired to replace Darrell Waltrip, who retired to the television booth. Although the teams struggled during the first two races, his confidence has been infectious, according to car owner Travis Carter.
"It's nice not to wake up at 3 in the morning worrying about everything," Carter said. "I've always believed if you really know what you're doing, keep doing it, and it will work out. But we've been in such a lull for two or three years, we started to wonder if we really knew what we were doing. If you continually get your butt whipped, you lose your confidence."
Carter also owns a car driven by Jimmy Spencer. Between both cars, he's had only 12 top-five finishes since the 1998 season. A year ago, he worried about making the starting lineup. Now his goals are starting and finishing in the top 10.
"It's amazing what confidence can do for a race team," Carter said. "A year ago, if we came in and told the guys at the shop we needed to change something in every car, there would have been a mutiny. Now they get after it. You can see the enthusiasm in the shop. Their attitude is, `If you drive it, we'll fix it.'
"Todd has proven this team can run well. And Jimmy's team has the confidence to ask questions. It's made both of them better."
Both of Carter's cars are starting today's race from within the first eight starting positions.
Dale Jarrett will start on the pole after qualifying his Ford at 192.748 mph. Jeff Gordon's Chevrolet is second at 192.413.
Bodine's Ford was clocked at 192.320 mph.
Much like older brothers Geoffrey and Brett, Todd Bodine is one of the most accessible drivers in the business. He usually is around his car or transporter, unlike other drivers who hide in their motor homes.
Now that he's one of the hottest drivers in stock car racing, Bodine seems to like the attention. He did more interviews Friday and Saturday than he's done in the last year. He understands better than anyone else, fame is fleeting. A couple finishes out of the top 30 will relegate him to an also-ran.
"It's nice to have people notice you," he said. "I guess I look at things in a different way now. If doing interviews is part of running up front, then I don't mind it at all. I don't think I'm doing anything any different than I did in the past, but all of a sudden, it's falling into place.
"A race team is a like a puzzle. If all the pieces don't fit, the driver doesn't make any difference. Maybe I can be the piece of the puzzle that makes all the difference."
Reach Don Coble.