Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Tuesday April 17, 2012
When it comes to the A-list of NASCAR superstars, Greg Biffle is the sport’s forgotten man. Third on Roush Fenway’s totem pole, he sits behind handpicked royalty Carl Edwards and best friend Matt Kenseth, the only active Ford Sprint Cup champion. Missing the Chase last season, he went winless and quietly slugged his way to 16th in points, not exactly the numeric irony the driver of the No. 16 car was looking for after signing a long-term deal. Biffle’s resume is also devoid of double-dipping: his last Nationwide start came in 2010, and the last time he ran in the Truck Series Joey Logano was busy attending bar mitzvahs, not major NASCAR events.
Perhaps most important of all, in the public’s eye Biffle has the personality of your local librarian. I mean that with all the goodwill in the world; Biffle is one of the more open, relaxed drivers on the circuit who’s always up for an interview, never dodging a question I’ve asked in six years. One of the sport’s nice guys, he’s got a sarcastic sense of humor that makes close friends laugh behind closed doors. But in public, the poor man makes Jimmie Johnson look like a Real Housewife of New Jersey by comparison.
A technical guy, his answers too often come off like page 95 of a scientific news brief or your 10th grade biology textbook. Apart from an incident with Boris Said last year at Watkins Glen, and the occasional spat with Joey Logano, his on-track escapades are utterly devoid of drama. Even his off-track life sports a forgettable picket-fence feel — wonderful wife, first child and Biffle just aren’t packaged with the type of charisma that creates a national following.
For every 50 Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hats in the stands, you might find one for Biffle. Brad Keselowski has nearly four times as many Twitter followers, one of many drivers NASCAR execs would rather have leading the standings through seven races.
Yet just because someone’s a little… shall we say it? … boring is no reason for their success to get outright ignored. And finally, after Saturday night’s surprise Texas win the focus must be turned rightfully towards the current Sprint Cup point leader. Biffle has a healthy 19-point cushion over Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. this April, already earning more top-5 finishes (four) than all of last season combined. A 49-race winless streak was smashed the old-fashioned way, by giving it all you’ve got under green-flag conditions. Biffle kept up the pressure despite a seemingly hopeless cause, always about a second or so out of reach for nearly 100 laps. Then, after the final pit stop during an unlikely 234-lap, caution-free run to the finish, he seized an opportunity in lapped traffic to close and pass his rival, a leader who also happens to be the sport’s only five-time consecutive champion.
“I was foaming at the mouth,” he said, claiming his own personal focus made the name Jimmie Johnson… pedestrian. “You know, a winless streak will wear on you. It’ll take years off your life. When you haven’t won in a long time and you’ve got a guy that’s — it doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter who it was, whether it was a five-time champion or what. I was driving my heart out.”
“I found a little something with about 40 to go down in Turn 3 and 4, where I saw the No. 48 putting his left front tire on the racetrack and I drove across there one time and I found some grip right there, so I started driving that line and I started closing in on him instantly. I knew [for most of the night] his car was a little better than mine. But you know, I kept putting pressure on him, and that’s what it took.”
What Biffle also craved was a perfect night from his crew, much-needed excellence that’s turned erroneous far too many times in recent years. You name the mistake, the No. 16 has either made it or fallen behind the curve, whether it be struggling without the catch can man last season, taking two tires when needing four or misplacing a lugnut at a time when track position means everything. But that’s where the addition of crew chief Matt Puccia, installed in the middle of last season has made a difference. Three Stooges behavior, tolerated towards the end of the “ran-its-course” Greg Erwin era has been abolished, combined with a consolidation from four teams to three at RFR that put better people in the right positions on this team. While Kenseth and Edwards were already packaged with top-notch personnel, two middling cars (the now-defunct No. 6 and the No. 16) were allowed to become a single great one.
“He revamped the entire team over the winter,” Biffle said of Puccia, with an assist to owner Jack Roush. “I really, really like my guys. They’re doing a great job. They’re really focused. Lots of energy. No matter how we run, they’re pumped up, and that means a lot.”
It’s that positivity that propels them forward, putting the right pressure on to waste a second straight strong performance by the No. 48 (zero wins despite 268 laps led the last two weeks). A consistent feeling, with the right luck, leads to consistent on-track performance, and this team now has seven straight top 15s for the first time since 2009-10.
Of course, those results also offer a warning for the present day: peaking too early. Remember as Biffle faded into an uneventful, sixth-place “eh” ending in the points by November, 2010? Regular season point leaders (see: Kevin Harvick) often struggle by putting their best foot forward early on before the playoffs. But you’d think at age 42 Biffle has learned his lesson from those past performances, and he’s come close to the title more than you’d think: second in 2005, third in 2008 and five Chase appearances overall. That experience includes a Nationwide and Truck Series title, respectively as he’s bidding to become the first to win it across all three of NASCAR’s top series. No one, from the Tony Stewarts to the Edwards to the Jimmie Johnsons of the world has done that.
This weekend was actually supposed to be Johnson, or Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s, or someone at Hendrick knocking on the door after Martinsville for victory No. 200. But it’s easy to forget, in the face of Earnhardt hype, the one guy above him in points had a winless streak of his own to be hungry about. Add in secure sponsorship, an all-but-lifetime deal at Roush and suddenly the name Greg Biffle means contender for the first time in years.
Will RFR’s Edwards and Kenseth have something to say about that? Absolutely; both will also be in the Chase. But it’s impossible to ignore their teammate anymore, starting a victory total this season that will almost certainly end higher than one.
“To win like this and [gain] a bunch of ground on the guys [in the points,] – all the cars behind us, that certainly makes a statement,” Biffle claimed Saturday night. “For all the people that were wondering if this was kind of a fluke that we were still leading the points this far in.”
The legion of Earnhardt supporters, and plenty of corporate partners were certainly hoping the fluke would end. But they have to work with what they’ve got: The Biff is here to stay in 2012.
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