The Frontstretch: Another Playoff Opener, Another Chase Cinderella: Why We Should've Guessed Biffle by Thomas Bowles -- Monday September 15, 2008

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Another Playoff Opener, Another Chase Cinderella: Why We Should've Guessed Biffle

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday September 15, 2008

 

OK, altogether now. The winner of Sunday’s race at New Hampshire was … Carl Edwards? Nope. Kyle Busch? Heck no. Jimmie Johnson? Nah, he finished second.

Jeff Burton? Clint Bowyer? Denny Hamlin?

No. No. No! It’s Greg Biffle, guys. Greg Biffle.

Just think about how many names most fans would have gone through if they didn’t see this race and had to guess the winner. Not only was Biffle far from the top of most peoples’ championship lists, to say he’s struggled at New Hampshire Motor Speedway would be an understatement. Coming into Sunday, he’d had only four Top 10 finishes in 12 career starts, with as many DNF’s as races led (2). Frankly, the Biff’s last four finishes up north read like the beginning of a random powerball ticket: runs of 14th, 31st, 13th, and 21st had you looking far beyond the No. 16 when it came to finding a Loudon race winner. We should have known The Biff would come out of nowhere … right?

Right?

Sometimes, a quick look at history makes these things look all too predictable.

The only way Biffle’s New Hampshire win wasn’t surprising is that we didn’t see it coming. Every year, like clockwork one driver we least expect to contend comes out with a bang and tries on a Cinderella slipper of their own. Why did we even bother talking so much about Busch, Edwards, and Johnson? It’s true that in the five years of the Chase’s existence, each playoff opener at Loudon has been won by a playoff contender. But the trophy never leaves with the man you expect; Kevin Harvick’s 2006 win as the third seed remains the lone exception from a trend that benefits those who start the playoffs towards the bottom.

Indeed, Loudon lends itself to the underdog, with men like Kurt Busch in ’04, Ryan Newman in ’05, Clint Bowyer in ’07, and now Greg Biffle taking charge. Of those four, only Busch’s Cinderella slipper took hold for the full journey, with the win catapulting him to the most improbable Chase title to date. Whether Biffle produces some similar magic remains to be seen, but the six-year veteran knows how much this could mean to a team that entered the weekend winless on the year.

Biffle’s win at New Hampshire was his fifth during the five-year history of the Chase format. Only Jimmie Johnson (11) has more.

“The horse rode today, didn’t it,” he said with confidence after his win. “There were some [tracks] that I was a little nervous about [in the Chase] and one was Loudon. So, we’ve gotten through the one a little better than I expected.”

“Our history here hasn’t been real strong,” added crew chief Greg Erwin, who’s presided over the last three ho-hum finishes here. “So quite honestly, we thought if we come out of here with a Top 10 finish and rolled into Dover, where we’re second and third and fifth or sixth in our last three trips there, that we’d be able to put a solid string together and get up there in the points.”

“You combine with that the effect that maybe we’ve been playing a little conservative the last four races not wanting to take ourselves out of Chase contention — last week [Greg and I] talked and he said, ‘The heck with that, man. We’re going hammer down, wide-open, as fast as we can go from here on out, so this is what you get. I guess he wasn’t kidding.”

Hmm … sounds like a familiar strategy. Last year, one Gil Martin put a similar restriction on Clint Bowyer through the final weeks of the regular season, holding him back with his eyes on a larger prize – the significance of assuring the duo simply made the Chase. Once they did, Martin told Bowyer he could unleash the aggression, a plan which worked out in a dominating win at Loudon and an eventual third place finish in the 12-team Chase field.

We should have realized Biffle was playing it safer than any other, the Chaser with the longest drought between appearances (’05) who knows all too well the disappointment of missing the cut. We should have known Biffle’s second place finish at California was the highlight of five straight Top 15 finishes the last five weeks, a small but significant sign the third member of the Roush Fenway Racing contingent was getting its act together just in time. We should have given more credit to Biffle’s championship experience, as he remains the sole driver to win titles in both the Craftman Truck and Nationwide Series, in his quest to win a title in NASCAR’s top three divisions.

And as the final straw, we should have paid attention to his pit crew. The Achilles’ Heel of the No. 16 team all season long, Roush Fenway switched things up for the Chase, realigning the best members of its non-Chase teams (No. 26 and No. 6) to fill the weaknesses of the three teams gunning for the title. Whether it’s the case of the rich getting richer is a whole other story; in this case, it was Roush using everything he had at his disposal.

“There were some members on the 26 car that were proven veterans,” Erwin explained “And [Robbie] Reiser stepped up to the plate and decided, ‘Look, this is our best foot forward. These are what we think are our most experienced, under-the-gun-type players,’ and made the decision and allowed each of our teams to get some guys from the No. 26 car… and it’s helped. Without a doubt it’s helped.”

“We had one hang-up on one stop that cost us a couple of spots, but the difference is nobody got down because everybody knew the potential is there.”

Considering all the pit road problems and penalties the No. 16 team’s faced this year, it’s obvious their team benefits most from the changes – although that ‘hang-up’ included Biffle nearly running over a crew member during an early stop. But both driver and team avoided catastrophe, and with one of the most difficult tracks behind them, they can now work on asserting themselves as a serious contender. With Kyle Busch’s point lead erased in the form of a broken sway bar, there’s potential for a serious momentum shift to someone like Biffle who could capitalize on a strong start.

“I’m surprised to see him that far back,” Biffle said. “I knew he was gonna finish bad when he was two laps down, but that can happen with the Chase. We all know that. It’s unbelievable how fast you can fall.”

“[But] I felt like we were a definite threat for the Chase if we made it because of the momentum we’ve had. And how good the race tracks are in the chase for me. Dover, I can’t name them all. Dover, Homestead – we’ve won at. Texas, Kansas… there are a bunch of great race tracks for us in the chase.”

“I feel like we’re definitely the darkhorse like a couple of people said we are.”

If only those people directed us to relearn a little history, those “couple of people” will have quickly become a fast majority. Biffle’s going to need to go one race at a time – and he’s still clearly behind Johnson and Edwards. But in the battle for Chase Cinderella, there’s no one else holding the glass slipper to start.

Contact Tom Bowles

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Gordon81Wins
09/15/2008 09:08 AM
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Kyle Busch’s lead wasn’t erased by a broken sway bar…it was erased by a playoff system that does nothing other than reward drivers with points that they did not earn.

Michael
09/15/2008 10:35 AM
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Actually , the consesus was that Tony Stewart would probably win Loudon .
Bifle and the team did a great job , but they really need to step up their program if they want to stay out front . The usual inter-team help on setups and race stategy is out the window at Roush i suspect , so they can’t count on too much help from their teammates .

Kevin in SoCal
09/15/2008 12:23 PM
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But Gordon, isnt this exciting now? We dont have to watch Busch on cruise control for the last ten weeks, getting just enough points to maintain his 200+ point lead. Now we get to watch 12 drivers go all out to see who is the best over the last ten races.

Mike In NH
09/15/2008 02:17 PM
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Kevin, his lead would be down to around 100 now, leaving several drivers within reach of catching him over the last 9 races – which would be just as exciting, if not more so. And without magically hitting the reset button after Richmond.

Douglas
09/16/2008 01:22 PM
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Hey Kevin in Socal, as they say, “if somes good! mores better!”

If taking points away after 26 races is “good”, then lets take ALL points away after race #35!

Same analogy!

So, this must then be “good”!

THEN!!! And it even gets better, by your way of thinking, we would have FORTY THREE (43) cars racing for the chumpionship! All in a single race!

It all follows, correct?

Kevin in SoCal
09/16/2008 03:54 PM
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Nope, Douglas, it doesnt work that way. The first 26 races are the qualifiers for the final 10 race playoff. If you reset the points for all drivers after race 35, then you just negated the first 35 races, and made it winner take all in the final race. I dont think any of us would agree with that. More is not always better.

Battiman
09/17/2008 03:47 PM
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My Nascar viewing stops after race 26…the Chase is pure marketing, and if I wanted that I’d watch the NFL, NBA and MLB with their bloated schedules, playoffs and whiney overpaid athletes.
The ONLY way the Chase makes sense is to have a season champion (36 races) and a Chase Champion (last 10 races…top 10 cars plus any driver outside the top 10 with a win…who has qualified in all the previous 26 races.) Now you have a format that makes sense and doesn’t make the first 26 races seems like the pre-season.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

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