The 2012 NASCAR season is still very much in its infancy, but after just a couple races of an arduous 36-race, 10-month schedule, trends are emerging. One such trend is a solid start for Greg Biffle, who has a pair of very solid third place finishes to open up the year. The Biff is, in fact, one of only five drivers with a pair of top-10 finishes alongside Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and the ageless wonder himself: Mark Martin.
Two races might be too small a sample size, but given how the Biff started 2011 — 36th in the Daytona 500, 20th at Phoenix and 28th at Las Vegas – early success and strong form is a positive sign. “I’m feeling really good,” noted Biffle at the Phoenix post-race press conference.
Confidence, as we all know, plays such a huge role for race car drivers. And although it’s one of the “intangibles,” there’s little doubt it can be a massive contributory factor provided the cars the driver is piloting are already competitive. So where has this new found lease of confidence for the Biff come from?
“I’ve got all new guys. I’ve got guys working really hard on the car, crew chief and team, and a guy that’s really, really smart paying attention to all the fine details, and that’s Matt Puccia,” Biffle noted. “And that’s the reason why we got two third-place finishes…because of his leadership and his decision making on pit road on what to do to the car. It’s execution, he’s thinking about it. He makes the decisions he wants, and that’s why we’re sitting here now.”
Let’s take a brief step back and review the situation starting with the Biff’s previous crew chief Greg Erwin, who picked up the head wrench duties back in June of 2007 and served atop the war wagon for the No. 16 Ford Fusion for nearly four years. In the three full seasons (2008-10) Biffle made the Chase each time, finishing third, seventh and sixth overall – pretty impressive numbers for any driver not named Jimmie Johnson.
But things started to go awry last year and after a difficult first half, team co-owner Jack Roush decided to make a change. “We had great people, had a great car chief, had a great crew chief in Greg Erwin on Greg Biffle’s program, but the two Gregs did not lock together,” Roush said. “One of them didn’t start a sentence and the other get to finish it. They didn’t wind up always being as comfortable with decisions that were being made and questions asked as they should have. Try as I might, I couldn’t fix that.”
In came Matt Puccia as Biffle’s new crew chief, who had been with the organization since 2004. Puccia served as crew chief for Erik Darnell in the Camping World Truck Series in 2006, then stepped up to oversee Paul Menard’s Nationwide Series efforts from mid-2009 through the end of 2010. “Matt has been a very effective and successful crew chief with the organization in Nationwide and Camping World,” said Roush at the time of the switch. “This is a natural progression of our crew-chief development, and I have every confidence he will do well.”
Now while Puccia couldn’t turn round results enough to secure Biffle a fourth straight spot in the Chase, things started to improve including three pole positions (Michigan, Kansas and Texas) and other strong finishes across the year.
During the off-season further changes were implemented with Biffle, picking up the pit crew from the now defunct No. 6 team. Roush also tweaked on the engineering side in order to supplement the new over-the-wall team. All these adjustments left general manager Robbie Reiser feeling extremely optimistic about the 2012 iteration of Biffle’s team.
“I think that the No. 16 will be better, first of all, from a leadership standpoint of having everybody working together,” Reiser said. “Their over-the-wall bunch, obviously, got some tune-up with bringing in some younger guys, and that’s going to bring some spirit back to the team. I think that will all be pluses.”
And so far, with two top-5 finishes — Biffle had three total top-5’s in the entirety of 2011 – logic would suggest these changes have indeed been what Reiser describes as “pluses”. Now certainly there are some fans out there who would say Biffle should have pushed harder to win the Daytona 500; that he in some way chickened out of trying to pass good friend and long-time teammate Matt Kenseth.
“Well, obviously I wish we would have done a few things maybe a little bit different,” said Biffle post-race. “We had a great Speedweeks. Coming out of here with a third place finish is really exciting for us. More importantly, we didn’t wreck and we got a good finish. I still am a little blown away by the end of that race and that we weren’t able to push up to the back of the No. 17 car. I was kind of surprised by that. Next time maybe we will do something a little bit different.”
That’s enough of an explanation to me. At the end of the day Kenseth is his friend but there’s no way any driver would roll over in the Daytona 500 and just let a buddy take the glory. Come on now folks, he’s a race car driver after all. Playing nice is for after the race – to me, this is just specious criticism.
Aside from the grumblings and mutterings (cough Junior Nation cough), the overall 2012 picture is a positive one for Biffle; as he and Puccia continue to work together, allied with the likely strong Ford engines, and feedback from his experienced teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, expect Biffle to keep on recording fine results and make a sustained push for a fifth overall appearance in the Chase. What happens from there is anyone’s guess, but so long as Biffle carries on as he has begun he should be in good shape.
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