One of the most elusive, powerful things in sports is the ability, as an individual, to control your own destiny in competition. In some sports, that's pretty easy - in one-on-one sports like singles tennis, you're going to win or lose based on your skill level alone, unless the referee makes a mistake on a call that changes the momentum of the game. In sports like basketball, baseball, and football, you've got a bigger challenge - not only are there refs involved, but you have to deal with teammates, too. You could have the game of your life in baseball, pitching a no-hitter through nine innings, but if your teammates don't support you by scoring any runs, there's no guarantee you'll pull through with a win. Football, it's even worse - with almost 50 players taking a snap in every game, just one person's fumble could mean the difference between an upset winâ€¦and a devastating loss. There's a simple rule of thumb here; the more variables there are that can affect your situation, the easier it is for things to spiral out of control through no fault of your own.
In no sport, it seems, is these variables higher than NASCAR. Not only do you have to deal with officials who could make a bad call, not only do you have to deal with teammates that can make a bad pit stop and send you right from the front to the back, and not only do you have to deal with 42 other crazy drivers where one wrong turn by someone else can get you wiped outâ€¦—- but you have to deal with your car itself. Inside that piece of gifted metal are dozens of individual parts whose lifespan begins to tick town to zero the moment they're taking out of their packaging. You don't know if these things are going to break, it's just a matter of whenâ€¦and in a sport where consistency wins championships, one inconsistent performance by a piece of the car can lead to a trip to the garage, a last place finish, and an opportunity lost.
This explanation of poor racing luck will prove as no consolation to Greg Biffle and the Roush Racing shop on Monday morning. Already reeling from the crash that all but eliminated Carl Edwards out of the Chase, Jack Roush himself is waking up to the distinct possibility of going from all five of his teams qualifying in 2005 to just two this year. Certainly, after a poor start it was expected McMurray might not qualify for the Chase, and with this season only Edwards' second, he's certainly allowed a bit of a reprieve. Biffle, though, may prove to be the biggest blow, the one that will have Roush reeling for quite sometime.
With 2006 his fourth full season in Nextel Cup, Biffle was hoping to follow in the footsteps of both Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, both of whom have won championships in their fourth season. After Greg Biffle came into his own in 2005, finishing a solid second to Tony Stewart in last year's championship Chase with six wins, history tells us this should be The Biff's career year. In some ways, it has been; Biffle led 1322 laps last year, yet he's on pace to lead 1425 this time around. Earlier this season, he rattled off seven Top 10 finishes, a first for his career and something he would have never been able to accomplish before.
Those numbers mean nothing, though, when you can't cross the finish line on the last lap and make it up. From the beginning this year, that has been Biffle's downfall. Spinning out on the last lap at Daytona to start the season, Biffle finished a distant 31st in the 500. OK, no problem; California was next, a track where Biffle was the defending champion. Sure enough, he led a race high 168 laps and was poised for a winâ€¦before the engine decided to go sour.
And so it's continued, stretches of brilliance for Biffle mixed in with problems beyond his control. Martinsville? Wrecked at the hands of Jeff Burton. Texas? Led 49 laps and was running up frontâ€¦before the front bumper of Kurt Busch took care of business and wrecked him out. Phoenix? Ran in the Top 5 all night, only to run out of fuel coming towards the checkers. Talladega? The team tried to compensate for that mistake with better fuel mileage…only to burn a piston and finish 38th. Indianapolis? Running in the Top 15 until last lap tangle with Robby Gordon wrecked a promising day.
If you're counting at home, that's at least seven of 21 races entering Watkins Glen in which Biffle has had problems not of his making - a cool 33%. To compare, point leader Jimmie Johnson has just three races in which he's finished lower than 12th. Of course, Biffle has led more laps than Johnson - it's not even close (872 to 364) - but, as everyone knows, stats are just numbers on paper unless they're tied in to the last lap.
Heading to Watkins Glen, this was supposed to be the weekend Biffle turned it all around. At some point, you would think the bad luck would stop, right? Well, you thought wrong. Only one car crashed during Nextel Cup qualifying - the car of Greg Biffle. Starting 41st, Biffle had to slowly work his way through the field, but was methodically picking guys off. As with so many other races this season, Biffle was moving up.
Of course, you know the rest of the story - how could you not? With the flip of a switch, Biffle went from moving up to moving into someone's way. Kyle Petty's No. 45 Dodge had a close encounter with Biffle's No. 16 Ford, and only one survived. Let's put it this wayâ€¦Kyle was running in the Top 10 for much of the second half of the race. Biffle wasn't so lucky.
As Biffle rounded the road course and headed towards pit road with his damaged race car, I couldn't help but think of the irony involved in the spinout that finished off his season. Here was a man in Kyle Petty, regarded as one of the kindest, most generous men in the NASCAR garage - and even he couldn't cut Biffle a break. It was a car sponsored by a camp specializing in helping terminal children with cancer - and still, that bumper had no problem knocking a car in front of it into the wall once the 16 car came close by.
Yeah, sometimes luck just doesn't seem to go your way. But that's no consolation to Biffle, who will spend most of the next 14 weeks trying to figure out what he did wrong during the offseason last year to deserve such rotten luck.
The rest of us will simply be wondering what could have been.
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