After fast start, Biffle's hopes for championship fade

Thursday, November 10, 2005

He won five races early in the season, but stands fourth in points with two races to go.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Greg Biffle opened the season as the driver to beat. Winner of five of the first 15 races, Biffle was nearly untouchable and a solid bet to win the Nextel Cup championship.

But with two races remaining this season, Biffle is a long shot -- at best -- to win his first title.

He's faded to fourth in the Chase for the championship standings, 122 points behind leader Tony Stewart.

Biffle has accepted that he'll need near-miracles this week in Phoenix and in the season-finale in Homestead, Fla., to make up the ground.

"It looks like we're not out of it," he said. "But it's going to take a big turnaround for us to be on the podium in Homestead."

So what's happened to Biffle, a driver who started the Chase in second place, only five points out of the lead?

On paper, it looks as if he's done everything right. Biffle has scored four top-10 finishes through the first eight Chase races, and his lowest effort was a 27th in Talladega.

The problem is that his competition -- Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and now teammate Carl Edwards -- all have produced slightly better results. It put Biffle in position of needing a flawless run last weekend in Texas, a track he dominated during the spring en route to one of his wins.

But a loose wheel set the tone for a long, frustrating day on Sunday. Biffle was forced to pit under green to fix it, and he struggled the rest of the race to get back on the lead lap. He finished 20th, but it could have been worse: Biffle made several spectacular saves to keep his car off the wall during numerous spinouts.

"It's not over and I'm not giving up, but I am also realistic," Biffle said after the race. "We needed a good day. We had a bad day."

Those days are hard for Biffle to accept. An ultra-competitive driver who never has shied away from pointing fingers when things go wrong, Biffle has waited a long time for his shot at a Cup title and hates to see it slip away.

At 35, he's much older than the typical upstart driver. But that's because his path to stardom was never clear. Friends helped him get the attention of car owner Jack Roush, who was impressed but didn't really have a place to put Biffle.

So Biffle started in the truck series, where he gave Roush his first NASCAR championship at any level. Then it was on to the Busch Series, where Biffle became the only driver in NASCAR history to win both that championship and the truck title.

At last, Roush had a slot for Biffle in 2003 on a startup team in the Cup series. Biffle's team struggled mightily that year, and even though he scored his first career win at Daytona in July, heavy personnel changes were made in what the Roush organization described as "stripping down the team, then building it back up."

It took all of 2004 to get Biffle's team equal with Roush's other cars, and Biffle closed out the year with a win at Homestead.

Nothing has changed for Biffle or his team from the start of the year to now, but he's not winning like he was. His last victory was June 19 in Michigan, the week before Stewart started his streak of five wins in seven races and supplanted Biffle as the driver to beat.

"The cars that we were winning with in the beginning of the season really are similar to what we have now," Biffle said. "People learn throughout the season and catch up. We worked hard over the wintertime, and I think we were a little ahead of the competition. The competition has caught up."

Driver standings

1. Tony Stewart6,255
2. Jimmie Johnson6,217
3. Carl Edwards6,178
4. Greg Biffle6,133
5. Mark Martin6,132
6. Matt Kenseth6,120
7. Ryan Newman6,081
8. Kurt Busch5,974
9. Rusty Wallace5,940
10. Jeremy Mayfield5,848
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