The Frontstretch: Seizing A NASCAR Window Of Opportunity by Thomas Bowles -- Monday August 20, 2012

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Seizing A NASCAR Window Of Opportunity

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday August 20, 2012

 

Greg Biffle and Rodney Dangerfield have about as much in common as Lindsay Lohan and Barack Obama. One races cars for a living; the other was an actor/comedian. The driver would kill for any type of fan following; Dangerfield spent his career leaving legions of fans laughing. And though Dangerfield died a few years back, Biffle is very much alive and remains in the midst of his NASCAR career.

However, the two men remain tied together, if only through one simple phrase…

“I don’t get no respect.”

“I know that a lot of people don’t expect us to win the championship, don’t expect us to compete for the title,” said Biffle shortly after emerging from Michigan Speedway’s Victory Lane. “I don’t care what they say or who they want to talk about or what they talk about. We will be a factor when it comes down to Homestead. I promise you that.”

Greg Biffle may be more of a contender for the championship this year than many people are giving him credit for.

OK then. Greg Biffle, feisty and focused, tried definitively on Sunday to put his Cup Series rivals on notice. The question was whether anyone was listening. After all, it was Jimmie Johnson, not Biffle who was leading with a handful of laps to go before a likely “postseason experimental” engine went kaput on the No. 48. Both men may never have matched Mark Martin, the pole sitter and surprise early leader in the No. 55 Toyota, before a frightening crash took the 53-year-old out of the running. Yes, Biffle seized a Michigan opportunity, surviving a strange race, poor pit strategy, and his closest rivals to scorch the field on restarts late. But was his good fortune simply the result of everyone else’s bad luck?

Cue Brad Keselowski.

“I didn’t know how much Jimmie had been holding back,” the Dodge driver said of his late-race experience dueling with the No. 48. “When he pushed the trigger, when he passed me, it was clear he had been holding back a lot. It’s hard to know those things. You never know how hard a driver is pushing. Obviously, he wasn’t going a hundred percent. When he did, he was clearly the class of the field. That was quite a sight to see.”

Sounds like a man who believes Biffle was a grade level below Johnson’s brilliance, that everyone was again holding the red carpet for the No. 48 car’s waltz to first place. But while J.J. could have easily won three of the last four races, often creating his own time zone, on-track the bottom line is that he’s cashed in on just one. That means on paper, Biffle has the exact same number of victories during that stretch—enough to give him the point lead after the Hendrick engines went south.

“In my heart, I know what my team is capable of,” said Biffle Sunday, whose two victories now tie the most he’s had since 2005—the last time this driver was in Chase contention down the stretch. “I pay attention to what we need to do as a team, not make mistakes, do what it’s going to take to win this championship. If it’s not a story, [the media] don’t cover it; that’s fine. But they’ll be forced to after Homestead.”

Of course, Biffle’s bravado can’t really make the engine turn a few extra horsepower. But as this Chase toys with an all-too-familiar theme—Johnson vs. Most Of Team Hendrick/Stewart—The Biff, at 42 represents your best choice for a third-party candidate. Of the seven drivers without Hendrick ties, he’s the safe pick amidst a sea of challengers that come attached with their own scandal/slump. Consider…

A winless Kevin Harvick, whose baby Keelan has had more TV time as of late. Honestly, with the junkyard jalopy masquerading as the No. 29 the kid in diapers has as much of a chance running that RCR Chevrolet. There’s Martin Truex, Jr., a heartwarming story but whose zero in the win column, combined with a five-year Chase drought, gives him this year’s high school superlative of “Happy To Be There.” Clint Bowyer, who’s also had a spectacular season in MWR equipment has neither the experience with his team or the up-front speed (26 laps led on ovals) to make a push.

Up next are the scandals. Matt Kenseth, despite leading the points midseason, is a “lame duck” within his own team, kickstarting the Chase next month with an announcement he’s kicking Roush to the curb. Hard to win a title under those conditions, you think? Kenseth’s future teammate, Denny Hamlin was once considered title material but has joined likely non-Chaser Kyle Busch in breaking every part that moves in his JGR Toyota. Internal frustrations building, the only points explosion you’ll see in this camp will come from someone’s testy temper. And then there’s Brad Keselowski, a solid second and a wonderful story for the second year in a row. But with his full-time teammate fired, combined with a manufacturer that’s thrown in the towel for 2013, chances are the Cinderella speed they’re experiencing will soon run out.

That leaves… Biffle. Yes, the 42-year-old whose off-track personality excites some fans less than a cardboard box is what’s left to do battle with Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Juniiooorr, Tony Stewart, and, technically, Ryan Newman. Public perception has always put Biffle down the totem pole at RFR, behind a charismatic Edwards, a championship-winning Kenseth and the “young gun” sensation of the day (Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.).

No wonder The Biff is so pumped up. Entering 2012, coming off a missed postseason bid, he was the last person expected to contend from that camp, top resources going to Edwards while rumors popped up that even some of the 3M sponsorship money could be funneled to Kenseth. Even with three top-5 finishes in the first three races—equaling his total from all of 2011 combined—most of the focus remained on breaking Edwards out of his slump. After all, he’s the long-term pick, whose contract Ford stepped up to secure the second Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing came calling.

That reality, combined with an emerging rookie in 2013 (Stenhouse) and Biffle’s age, mean the time to win can be spelled out in one word: now. Looking ahead, this Nationwide and Truck Series champ (bidding to become the first to take it in all three series) hasn’t even had back-to-back seasons with a Cup victory since 2007-2008. Add in the difficulty in sponsoring Kenseth and you wonder whether 3M’s current contract (which expires in 2014) will be their last, especially with Biffle set to turn 45 by then. And did I mention the last champion aged 44 years or older was Bobby Allison way back in 1983?

There’s no question that for Biffle, this year presents a once-in-a-blue moon opportunity. Without Edwards in the Chase, he’ll almost certainly get the most resources within RFR. The No. 16 has shown consistency everywhere, 10 top-5 finishes second only behind Johnson. Completing all but two laps, falling a lap behind at Martinsville and Kentucky reliability has been a strong point. If not now… when?

There’s no doubt, looking at the shellacking the No. 48’s been putting on the field as of late he’s the definitive favorite. Kasey Kahne, whose recovery has been award-winning sits a close second. But as we saw on Sunday, the fastest cars don’t always win. Sometimes, racing is a case of survival.

If that’s what you’re banking this Chase on; well, Greg Biffle is right: he’s the best darkhorse option you’ve got.

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DoninAjax
08/20/2012 11:29 AM
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I wonder where Chad is hiding the nitrous. If Marty Robbins can put it in…

 

Contact Tom Bowles

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