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Bowles-Eye View: Another Playoff Opener, Another Chase Cinderella – Why We Should’ve Guessed Greg Biffle

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 DNFs as races led (two). 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, Bowyer in ’07 and now 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.

“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 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 Craftsman 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 No. 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 racetracks 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.

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