INSTAGRAM | @justinbarcia

PHOTOS | Octopi Media

We might have a "new" Justin Barcia to watch in 2019. At first glance, nothing is different about the Monster Energy Yamaha Factory Racing rider. He still has the same sponsors as always with Alpinestars, Arai, SCOTT, and Monster Energy, there's still the long hair and scruff on his head, and his inner circle is the same as ever, only now wife Amber has moved from England and is a full-time part of the program.

But after watching Barcia over the weekend at Anaheim One, something seems different. During the Friday pre-race press conference he was aware of the happenings around him, but instead of the darting eyes and unnecessary hand movements that seem to come when one is under the bright lights, Barcia's glance was held in one direction as he listened to the questions and comments. Confidence is now conveyed as "I've been here before and know what I need to" maturity, not the "I know I am the best person here" brashness he had as a young adult.

When asked to compare his 2018 status as a last-minute fill-in rider to his current multi-year deal with Yamaha, there was no searching for words as he explained how his confidence has improved. "Last year was just up in the air so I didn't have a lot of testing time. It was a new bike and yeah, I did come out and did really well and earned my spot on the team. It's definitely something that boosts my confidence, for sure because I had to work so hard to get back to this position," he told Steve Cox of Cycle News. "I don't think a lot of riders have been able to do what I have probably done. It's cool to think that. But all in all, this year has been awesome. I haven't had to stress about getting a ride and haven't had any injuries, so I've been able to do my training, dial in the bike, what I wanted to fix, and I go to go racing at one offseason race, which I thought was important for me to get on the gate and test the bike in race conditions. That went well and it's been awesome."

There's no denying that a few less than stellar race seasons caused people to question what would come of Justin Barcia. His move from Team Honda HRC to JGRMX was supposed to be the perfect pairing for success, but after years that included two different motorcycle brands, numerous changes in settings and sponsors, and multiple injuries, both groups agreed to go their separate ways. Sure, there were high points like multiple outdoor moto wins and competitive finishes, but the scorecards from this era are not dominated by Barcia. Although poor results are why most people felt Barcia was passed over by any factory team in that time between leaving JGRMX and joining Yamaha, there was a little more to the situation than that. Red Bull KTM was said to be interested in hiring Barcia until one sponsor reportedly used their might to block the deal from going much further, while other teams steered clear of Barcia altogether.

Barcia's name was rarely off the scoreboard on Saturday; he was the fastest rider of the first qualifying session for the 450 A Group and was ninth overall in the final times, ran in second place in the 450 Heat Race until a mistake by Malcolm Stewart allowed him to speed into the lead, and put in an eye-opening ride during the Main Event. While both of Barcia's past 450 Main Event wins came thanks to excellent starts and early leads, this was one victory he had to "work" for after a fourth-place rank on the opening lap. All twenty laps were consistent, the passes were close and decisive but not alarmingly aggressive, and he rarely seemed like he was over-riding the bike, all things Barcia is not known for. His average lap time was 1:05.549, the second best of anyone on the track (Eli Tomac's 1:05.544 was the faster average), and he was over three seconds ahead of Roczen at the checkered flag. It was the first time that Barcia had won a feature in six years and the first time Yamaha had won since 2012 with James Stewart, seasons that feel like they should be considered a different era.

The post-race press conference was much the same as the pre-race press conference, with Barcia rock-steady at the center of the table and replying to questions with no sense of uncertainty or overwhelming excitement. When Racer X Online's Aaron Hansel asked Barcia how it felt to start a season healthy and with a win the night's victor said, "It's been a long time and I've never won Anaheim One. Last year I was on the podium and before I hurt my hand I was really consistent at knocking out podiums. With this race, I take the confidence with it and use it to my advantage, for sure. It was good tonight because I was in third for a long time and just was consistent and smart. After the race I was kind of proud of myself because I usually ride over my head a little bit and try get into the lead fast, but I stayed there for well over half the race and made the passes when it counted. It's a nice position to be in, coming out of here with the win."

"I knew I could win it. Mentally, I kept thinking, 'When am I going to make this happen?' Malcolm would catch Dean and I was just there. It worked out when Malcolm fell. I knew I was faster than both of them, so when Malcolm went down I made the charge on Dean and made a good pass and kind of checked out from there. Definitely, it was in my mind the whole time that I could win the thing, for sure," replied Barcia to Racer X Online's Jason Weigandt. When Darkside asked about his most aggressive pass of the night, an early move on Jason Anderson that included contact, Barcia joked that since Anderson didn't go down it was a clean pass but that he knew it was necessary in order to latch onto the leaders. "You have to make it happen quick and I didn't want to risk being in back, running out of roll-offs or whatnot. I tried to make passes quick and get to the front as fast as possible."

Maybe the most telling quotes from Barcia came in response to a question by Jim Kimball from Motocross Action, who asked what Barcia thought of his own rise back to the top of the podium. Barcia made it clear that at one point he was disillusioned with motorcycles due to the injuries, challenges, and dry streaks in his career, but that he appreciates the accomplishments that have come with rebuilding his career. "I think more than anything I'm super grateful for the opportunities and to be here racing. I know it could have went a different direction so to here and win is unbelievable." All of it was said with a sense of modesty and understanding he's fortunate to be in this position, something the Barcia of 2013 seemed void of.

Here are a few things to point out about Barcia as we take on the season. His current contract with Monster Energy Yamaha Factory Racing, a crew that he works very well with is for 2019 and 2020, with an option for 2021. He'll turn twenty-seven in March. Over the offseason, he tied the knot with Amber, whom he met at the Geneva Supercross in 2016 and also studies psychology, and underwent Lasik surgery to correct his vision, the only "health" issue he needed to deal with after a full season of racing. While those things are important on their own, together they bring more stability to Barcia's life.

Does Anaheim One put Barcia back into full-time consideration for the championship? Twenty-five points to start the season is a huge help and he'll run the red plate this weekend in Phoenix. Barcia's third-place rank after round one in 2018 was considered a nice storyline to the opening round but not one that would have an impact on the full season and when a hand injury at Arlington ended his season while he was ranked second overall in the series, we were all left wondering what could have been. It’s wild to think a rider can go from six years between wins to instant title contender in one weekend, but the next few weeks will bring answers to a lot of questions.