If you were to build a prototypical NASCAR driver, he'd likely have parts from (left to right) Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, among others.
While some of them may make it look easy, becoming a race car driver is anything but easy. Countless drivers take to race tracks from California to Maine, yet only a few ever make it to the big time.
Sure, part of it is funding—without the cash, there's little chance of a dash all the way up to the NASCAR Sprint Cup level.
But not just anyone can be a race car driver, even if he or a family member or sponsor has deep pockets and can afford to put him in a car. Rather, it takes talent and a lot more to be successful behind the wheel.
Let's take a look at five key traits that separate a great NASCAR driver from a good one.
Kevin Harvick is one of the best examples of a NASCAR driver with fire in his gut.
You don't become a successful NASCAR driver, let alone a champion, by being timid. You need to have a fire that burns deep in the gut, a flame that is fed by competition against the best of the best.
The drivers who best display that trait are Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski.
It's not a trait that is learned—it's one that a driver is born with, a penchant to keep moving forward and beyond. Call it the pursuit of excellence or climbing the ladder—the act of conquering one series and then moving on to the next and even bigger challenge.
Like minor league baseball players hoping to one day be called up to the major league, as race car drivers work their way up through local tracks and regional racing series, their motivation is also to get to the big show and trade paint with the best drivers in the sport—and potentially become one of the best.
Brad Keselowski wasn't afraid to take chances last season, and he was rewarded with his first Sprint Cup championship.
As in any sport or business, those who take chances get ahead. It's the same way with NASCAR. If a driver is content to ride around and hope good situations come to him, he'll never be a champion, let alone successful.
But if he's willing to put everything on the line, take chances when others don't and make bonsai moves that others are afraid of, his talent and stock will definitely rise to the top.
Among the best in the business who have proved time and again that they're not afraid to take big chances are six-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon, three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart and defending Cup champ Brad Keselowski.
Do you see a common thread here? A willingness to take chances paid off with a Cup championship—and for some drivers, more than one.
Tony Stewart is a perfect example of a driver who has a good kind of cockiness.
When drivers reach the Sprint Cup level, they know they're good and belong there, and their fans and fellow drivers also come to learn just how good they are, sooner rather than later.
Call it a cocky kind of confidence. It's not so much an arrogant feeling of being better than everyone else (although that kind of thing does serve as motivation); rather, it's the belief and knowledge that a driver has paid his dues and no one is ever going to take that away from him.
Drivers who come to mind, although their personalities are radically different, are three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart and six-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson.
While Stewart has a confidence and cockiness that border on having a visible and often verbal chip on his shoulder, Johnson is just the opposite, possesses a cool, collected yet quiet cockiness. He also has the confidence that on most race days, he knows he's better than everyone else in the field.
And the other drivers know it, too.
After all, you don't reach NASCAR's top level by being a perpetual 30th-place finisher. For every driver who makes it, there are countless other aspiring racers who never get that far.
Sure, reaching NASCAR's Sprint Cup division is the ultimate goal, but a driver needs that good kind of cockiness and confidence to get that far. Otherwise, he never will.
Carl Edwards has never forgotten his roots when he was an up-and-coming driver.
A Sprint Cup driver is developed and not automatically born into the series. Drivers like Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr.—essentially the entire field in an average Sprint Cup race —spent many years and raced on countless tracks to develop their skill level and enhance their natural talent.
Far too often in other sports, athletes only seem to remember where they're at and where they're going and forget about where they've come from.
That's rarely the case in NASCAR. When a driver finally makes it to the Sprint Cup Series, he is unlikely to forget all the dues paid or the people who helped him along the way.
That's also why so many modern-day Cup drivers like to reflect back about the early days of their racing careers.
Johnson built his career by racing motorcycles and off-road vehicles.
Before he became a NASCAR legend, Gordon raced sprint cars and midgets while he worked his way up the racing ladder.
Edwards held a number of jobs to support his racing habit back, including being a substitute teacher and a reserve sheriff's deputy. He earned whatever money he could to pay for his racing fix and to support himself in case he never made it to the big time. Fortunately, Edwards did hit the big time, primarily because of his talent behind the wheel.
One of the best parts of being around NASCAR drivers is they are natural-born storytellers. They love to regale reporters, fans and other drivers—pretty much anyone who will listen—about some of their unique experiences, from the good to the bad to the ugly.
NASCAR drivers rarely forget their roots, and the reason is simple: If they didn't have those roots to support their career moving forward, they wouldn't be where they are today.
A driver can have all the talent in the world, but if he doesn't have a great pit crew, all that talent is going to be worthless.
That's why teams have put so much emphasis on hiring the best crew members in recent years, focusing significantly on those with physical strength, versatile acumen and the knowledge that there's no "I" in team.
As a result, it's not surprising that many of today's top crew members are former athletes, particularly ex-college standouts. It's why organizations such as Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and others have training facilities for crew members that would put most gyms to shame.
Here's another thing to consider: What was one of the first things Jimmie Johnson did after winning his five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006 through 2010?
He acknowledged his pit crew and the team at the race shop. Without them, Johnson likely wouldn't have won one title, let alone a record five in a row.
That crack pit crew is back at it again. As a result, Johnson has been at the top of the standings for several weeks already this season.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski