Good morning, race fans, and happy Tuesday to everyone! Already sick of hearing about fights, pit-crew swaps and one-finger salutes? Don’t worry, ole Garrett isn’t going down that path. With all the NASCAR chaos this past weekend at Texas, it is very easy to overlook some other intriguing stories that took place during the AAA Texas 500.
Despite the Toyota of Denny Hamlin winning the race and having no drivers in the championship battle, Ford enjoyed a great weekend. Elliott Sadler sat on the pole, Trevor Bayne had a solid 17th-place finish in his Sprint Cup debut, Carl Edwards won the Nationwide race and fellow Roush Fenway drivers Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth both landed top-five finishes, with both nearly pulling off the victory. For Biffle and Kenseth, though, that is about the only thing the two drivers had in common on Sunday.
It is hard to believe that Biffle could get such little attention after a heartbreaking fifth-place finish. He started on the outside pole and was by far the class of the field, leading 224 laps. He was challenged only at the end of long green-flag runs, and the crew had excellent pit stops all race to keep the No. 16 Ford in contention. However, a lap 301 caution for debris pretty much ended all hope for him to pick up his second victory at Texas. Biffle, who came out sixth after the final round of pit stops, was left without second gear – meaning any more cautions for the rest of the race (there were two) would inevitably doom him.
The fifth-place finish was solid, but a clearly disappointed Biffle felt the transmission issue could have been avoided. “It is really tough,” he said. “We know we have had this problem and have neglected to fix it. We have had numerous opportunities. We had bad drivetrain vibration problems and today it bit us. It shook the guts out of the transmission today and they still don’t know what it is. They think they know what it is, but I am not sure if they really know.”
Roush Fenway teammate Kenseth, on the other hand, had a completely opposite path to success. He started mid-pack in 19th place and quietly worked his way toward the top 10. But any upward movement came to a halt, quickly, after an unscheduled pit stop for debris on the grill left the 2003 Cup champ a lap down in the early stages of the event. After the fifth caution on lap 152, he was able to get back on the lead lap by getting the Lucky Dog, giving the No. 17 Ford new life at a track where they’ve contended for victory in the past. In typical Kenseth fashion, he slowly worked his way up to the top 10, and found himself sitting in second on the final restart. If Denny Hamlin didn’t have everything to gain on Sunday, he might have given Kenseth an easier time getting by with two laps to go. Hamlin didn’t, though, and Kenseth had to settle for a runner-up finish after a last-ditch effort to pull in front on the final restart fell short. Still, just the sixth top-five finish for this Ford all season marked a terrific comeback for the entire No. 17 bunch.
That doesn’t mean the hunger has died on ending a 68-race winless streak, though. Kenseth has been the bridesmaid plenty of times at Texas, and is hungry for a trip back to victory lane for the first time in almost two years. “I think we’ve been second here four times and really happy to run that good,” he said. “But really disappointing to be going for the lead on the last lap and not come back with a win, either.”
The irony of everything that happened to these two this past weekend is that it is rather symbolic of their entire seasons – different stories, different results. The first five races started off identical enough, with both scoring top 10s in each of those events. After that, though, the 2010 story for both diverged down two clearly different paths.
For Biffle, he made the most noise out of anyone in the Ford camp this year. As a matter of fact, the veteran’s two wins this season are the only wins for the Blue Oval crowd in 2010. His 543 laps led are easily the most any Ford driver has collected this year. His ability to lead and win races led many to believe this former Nationwide and Truck series champ could emerge as the potential darkhorse in this year’s Chase. Yet, just like Sunday’s race, Biffle has been snakebit trying to win his first championship. An engine failure at Fontana and several other races’ worth of bad luck have left Biffle ninth in the points, left with no hope in winning the Sprint Cup he so desperately covets.
Now, let’s go back to Kenseth. He, too, has no realistic shot at this year’s championship, but has suddenly come out of nowhere to sit fifth in the points (even in the “old” standings that so many of us still look at, he would sit 8th). It certainly hasn’t been pretty, either – no wins, three different crew chiefs and only those six top-five finishes. So how exactly is Kenseth having such a great year?
Well, pretty much the same way he won the 2003 championship (the season that arguably caused the Chase) – consistency. Albeit on a much lower scale than his championship run, Kenseth has maintained a solid level of reliability this year. He has completed more laps than anyone and has finished in the top 20 in all but four of the races. Of course, those aren’t jaw-dropping numbers, but Kenseth has never been the jaw-dropping kind of guy.
It certainly has been a tale of two different seasons for Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Biffle has led laps and won races, but has had to overcome several mechanical issues throughout the year to barely maintain a top-10 spot in points. Kenseth has avoided trouble and has quietly sneaked his way up to fifth, and could very well end up as high as fourth at season’s end.
So for those of you that hate the Chase or could simply care less about who is in the championship hunt, this battle is a subtle reminder there are other interesting stories still out there. For the Roush teammates of Biffle and Kenseth, these final two races will determine who really had the better season. Will it be consistency or wins that prove to be more important? If Texas showed us anything on Sunday, I am taking the former.