Category archive: Greg Biffle

SPARTA, Ky. -- Churchill Downs might be a little dirtier, and it's ancient compared to Bluegrass State neighbor Kentucky Speedway. But the 1.5-mile oval is downright gnarly compared to most racetracks in NASCAR.

And that's just how most drivers like it. Good drivers tend to want rough and bumpy rather than smooth and untarnished for a racing surface.

"This track really suits me," said Brad Keselowski, who won this race one year ago. "When it's rough, I tend to do better."

The bumpier the track, the less grip it has and the more it brings driver skill into play. Kentucky Speedway is as rough as they come.

"I love how much character that racetrack has," Jimmie Johnson said. "It's so rough. The groove moves around, and you really are just trying to dodge the big swells and bumps to find grip for your race car.

"It's a track I didn't have a lot of success at in the Nationwide Series, or even going there to test before my Cup career really started. We tested there a lot, and I crashed all the time. When the racetrack was back on the [Cup] schedule, I got pretty nervous about things, but I've had a couple of good runs."

Kentucky is one of only four oval tracks where Johnson has yet to win. Of course, this is only his third chance at Kentucky. He was sixth last year and third in the inaugural Kentucky Cup race.

[+] Enlarge
Tony Stewart
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesTony Stewart said he's still trying to figure Kentucky Speedway out.

Tony Stewart considers Kentucky one of his two home tracks, along with Indianapolis. Kentucky Speedway is only 65 miles from his hometown of Columbus, Ind. But he failed to post a top-10 finish in the first two Kentucky races.

"We're still figuring it out," Stewart said. "It's got a lot of bumps, so that makes it very challenging. Trying to figure out exactly where to be, where to try to get around some of the bumps, how to get through them better, how to get the car to go through them better -- those are challenges that kind of make it fun, because it's not easy to get around."

All three NASCAR series are racing here this weekend, so the added rubber on the asphalt will supplement the racing groove if wet conditions don't wash it away.

"This track creates a lot of side-by-side racing," Greg Biffle said. "It's flatter than most 1.5-mile ovals and has sweeping corners."

So drivers who consider themselves "wheel men" tend to be the ones who race up front on a track like Kentucky. One of those is Kyle Busch, who won the first Kentucky Cup race in 2011.

Busch and Keselowski are running all three races this weekend because they consider additional track time more important here than at any other track.

"The biggest thing with the extra track time is figuring out the bumps," Kyle said. "It helps if you need your guys to give you a better setup to get through some of those bumps."

Martin Truex Jr., coming off his first victory in six years with his win last weekend at Sonoma, thinks he has a legitimate shot to make it two in a row.

While a road-course win means little on this track, Truex has been at his best this season on the 1.5-mile ovals. He has posted top-10s at all four 1.5-mile oval races this season, including second at Texas, where he led 142 laps.

"But this track is so different," said Truex, who finished eighth at Kentucky last year. "Even though it's a mile and a half, it's unique with the layout and the way it arcs into the corners, but the bumps are the big thing.

"It's just gotten super rough. I guess it's always been rough. They fixed it a few times, and it keeps going back. You have to find ways through the bumps and find ways around them. And that makes it fun to drive."

NASCAR went with a new points system in 2011 based on one point per finishing position. It's better than the old system, but it still results in way too big a penalty for a bad finish compared to a good one.

For example, Joey Logano has one top-10 finish in the first five races (third at Fontana) and ranks ninth in the standings. The California race was the only time this year Logano has finished better than 12th.

Ryan Newman has finished better than 12th three times. He has three top-10s (including a fifth in the Daytona 500) but ranks 20th overall.

Huh? Newman crashed at Phoenix and finished 40th and had an engine failure at Las Vegas and finished 38th. A DNF (did not finish) is a points disaster.

Greg Biffle ranks fourth in the standings, but doesn't have a top-5 so far this season. Kyle Busch has three top-5s, including a victory at Fontana and second-place at Bristol, but he ranks sixth.

Busch had an engine failure at Daytona and finished 34th. Biffle hasn't finished worse than 17th, which he did twice. But shouldn't the man with three top-5s and a victory in the first five races rank ahead of the guy with no top-5s?

Consider this oddity: A driver could win three times in the first five races and be lower in the standings than a driver who didn't post a top-10 in those five events.

Five finishes of 11th (without leading a lap) would give a driver 165 points.

Another driver could win three times and lead the most laps (good for 144 points), finish 34th in the other two (good for 20 more points), and be one point behind the driver who didn't post a top-10.

That's not going to happen, of course, but you get the point, no pun intended.

The good news is the wild-card format (basing the final two playoff spots on victories for those drivers 11th through 20th) means the driver who wins races is likely to make the Chase if he ranks in the top 20.

But the system should have more of a reward for finishing well or less of a punishment for having a bad day.

•  Joe Nemechek is really racing: In 98 Cup starts over the previous three seasons, Nemechek was running at the finish only four times. He has equaled that amount in the first five races this season.

Nemechek's only DNF this season came in the Daytona 500. He isn't able to race competitively because he just doesn't have the funding or the personnel to do it. But he's racing until the end, giving it all he has, and that's good enough for me.

I don't know about us reading palms or being psychic, but when it comes to predicting the Chase participants, the boys did OK. You can even check it out on the chart at the bottom.

Getting it right on 10 out of 12 isn't so bad. Maybe we're not so dumb after all.

Our overall preseason predictions on the drivers who would make the playoff were 83.3 percent correct. We missed on Carl Edwards (who didn't?) and Kyle Busch.

The guys we didn't predict overall were Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. Clearly, we underestimated the improvement at Michael Waltrip Racing.

Marty Smith and David Newton outsmarted the rest of us on that one. They picked Bowyer to make the playoff, but he didn't total enough points to make our overall top 12. None of us picked Truex.

AJ Allmendinger was selected as a Chase-qualifier by Ed Hinton and Ryan McGee. Obviously, there were sad circumstances on that one, but he didn't appear headed to a playoff spot before the drug-test downfall.

Newt thought Joey Logano would make the Chase, and he was one victory from being right.

But overall, the seven of us -- K. Lee Davis, Joe Breeze, Smith, Newton, Hinton, McGee and me -- did pretty well.

It remains to be seen whether we get it right on our overall preseason choice as the Sprint Cup champion, Jimmie Johnson. Four of us picked him to win his sixth title: Davis, Breeze, Newton and yours truly. Marty and Easy Ed picked him second. McGee listed JJ third.

Ed selected Brad Keselowski as the 2012 champ, Marty picked Matt Kenseth and McGee chose Kevin Harvick. So we're all still in the running to get it right from our preseason choice.

Surprisingly, none of us picked Edwards to win the championship even though all of us thought he would make the Chase. Maybe we believed in that runner-up jinx stuff.

However, I changed my mind on the champ in my Chase predictions Sunday, listing Denny Hamlin as my selection now to win the title.

K. Lee and Joe are sticking with Johnson to win it all. Ed is staying with Keselowski. Marty is confident Kenseth's lame-duck status won't hurt him a bit, so he's hanging with Matt as the champ.

McGee thinks it's a two-man battle between Hamlin and JJ, but he went with Johnson. And Newt is convinced Gordon has what it takes after watching Jeff's amazing drive through the pack Saturday night to get in the playoff.

That means there's a 41.7 percent chance at least one of us is right. We've picked five different drivers between the seven of us -- three for Johnson and one each for Hamlin, Kenseth, Keselowski and Gordon.

We'll revisit this after Homestead and see if any of us got it right. Bonus points if the guys who stuck with their preseason pick end up with the champ.

Not every driver who received a vote made the top-12 cut. Here are the other drivers who received at least one nod.

Greg Biffle was winless entering the 2008 Chase, but he made the playoff in the ninth position.

Tony Stewart was winless entering the 2011 Chase, but he made the playoff in the ninth position.

Biffle won the first two races of the 2008 Chase. Stewart has won the first two races of the 2011 Chase.

Sound familiar?

But here's the part that Stewart doesn't want to repeat: Biffle didn't win in the final eight races of 2008 and finished third in the championship.

Biffle's average finish in the last eight events was 11.25. Not bad, but not near enough to catch Jimmie Johnson. Biffle finished 217 points back in the old points system.

[+] Enlarge
Greg Biffle
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesGreg Biffle won the first two races of the 2008 Chase but ended up third in the final Cup standings.

Stewart could fare better for several reasons. Biffle has yet to win a Cup title. Stewart has won two, including one in the Chase in 2005.

Stewart leads the standings after his two victories. Biffle never led the 2008 standings. Even after his two victories, he was 10 points behind leader Carl Edwards with eight races to go. Johnson was tied with Biffle after two Chase races.

Stewart's first victory this year came on a 1.5-mile oval at Chicagoland Speedway. Four more intermediate ovals are left in the Chase. Kansas Speedway, where the Cup teams race Oct. 9, is a limited-banked oval almost identical to Chicagoland.

Biffle's second win in 2008 came at Dover, a high-banked, 1-mile oval that isn't like any other track in the Chase. Of the final eight tracks in 2008, Biffle had won previously at four of them, including three wins at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Stewart has won at all eight remaining tracks for a total of 12 victories, including two each at Dover, Kansas, Martinsville and Homestead.

Stewart and the No. 14 Chevy team also have done their homework this year and learned how to win fuel-mileage races, something that wasn't as necessary in 2008 for Biffle as it is in 2011 for Stewart. It will happen again.

Stewart had fuel left in the tank two weeks in a row when others near the front ran dry. Clint Bowyer was leading Sunday at New Hampshire when his engine sputtered and Stewart zoomed by him, the complete opposite of what happened between those two drivers one year ago.

"We actually were two laps to the good at the end this time," said Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief, after the race. "I pushed the window from the run before longer than most people and pitted two laps later than the 33 [Bowyer] to make sure I had a little bit of a cushion. And Tony did a great job saving when he needed to."

Stewart has momentum on his side, but so did Biffle, and it wasn't enough.

"That race car doesn't know anything about momentum," Stewart said Sunday. "It knows what you put in it. It knows how we drive it. It doesn't know stats. It doesn't know anything other than just what's put in it.

"Momentum deals with people. It's not just these first two races of the Chase. It was the two weeks leading before it, too. We haven't finished outside the top seven now in the last four weeks. That's huge for us. It's huge for our guys."

Stewart had 11 top-10s entering the 2011 Chase, same as Biffle in 2008. But Biffle had eight top-5s compared to three for Stewart in the regular season.

"Up to the Chase, we couldn't do anything right," Stewart said Sunday. "We couldn't get it clicking. We couldn't get through all the bad luck. It seemed like every week something would happen and we'd have to try to dig ourselves out of a hole the rest of the day. I'm hoping and praying that we're through that bad string now, and things are going to click the next eight weeks."

It appears Stewart is in a better position to capitalize on his early Chase success than Biffle was three years ago. However, Stewart might need another break down the stretch.

Here's the key question: Can a driver who is leasing engines from another organization beat that organization if it still has its own driver (or drivers) in contention for the title at the end?

Stewart-Haas Racing leases engines for Hendrick Motorsports. Everyone involved will tell you there is absolutely no difference in motors between the ones Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are using in the Chase and the ones Stewart and SHR teammate Ryan Newman are using in the playoff races.

Maybe so, but it will be interesting to watch if Stewart and one or more of the Hendrick drivers are fighting for the championship in November.

Jamie McMurrayJason Smith/Getty ImagesJamie McMurray may well be celebrating after the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 again in 2011, but if he does, you can bet he makes the Chase this time.

Some things are going to change for NASCAR in 2011. Things you saw in 2010 will not repeat next season.

Did anyone really think we would see Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton do their weak Ali-Frazier impression on the track at Texas?

That's one example of things you won't see again in 2011, at least not from those two unlikely combatants. Here's a list of other things that took place in 2010, but aren't happening in 2011:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishing 21st in the Cup standings: Junior will crack the top 20 next season and possibly contend for the Chase, which won't be too tough if the playoff is expanded to 15 drivers.

Steve Letarte on the pit box and moving to the No. 48 shop will make Earnhardt competitive again.

A driver winning both the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 without making the Chase: That bizarre quirk happened for Jamie McMurray in 2010, but Halley's Comet will make another pass by Earth before that scenario comes around a second time.

Roush Fenway Racing failing to contend for the Cup title: RFR put three drivers in the 2010 Chase, but never seriously contended for the championship and didn't win a race until August.

It was clear by the end of the season that Jack's boys had figured things out and the new Ford engine was strong. Carl Edwards won the last two races and teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth will join him as title contenders in 2011.

The blindingly ugly front splitter: Like a teenager finally getting the steel removed from his mouth, the braces on the splitter will be gone and the overall look for the front of the cars becomes much smoother and more stylish.

Jeff Gordon going winless for a season: Not with Alan Gustafson calling the shots. Gordon will return to Victory Lane in 2011 and seriously contend for a fifth championship.

A full-time Cup driver winning the Nationwide title: Not officially, anyway. A real Nationwide driver will win it in 2011 because of rules changes coming soon that will keep the Cup big boys from racing for the crown in Nationwide.

However, Edwards or Brad Keselowski still could win the most races and unofficially tally the most points if they run all the Nationwide races as planned.

And a former Cup regular could win the title if Elliott Sadler gets it done while racing full-time in Kevin Harvick's Nationwide car.

A pothole during the Daytona 500: Daytona has shiny new pavement that will be smooth as glass. Drivers will get a first test next week, but the new asphalt could make a big difference in how things look for restrictor-plate wildness in the season-opener on the 2.5-mile oval.

[+] Enlarge
Bobby Labonte
Rusty Jarrett/NASCAR/Getty ImagesThere will be better days ahead for Bobby Labonte.

Bobby Labonte having to start and park: It was sad watching the former Cup champion forced to sometimes make meaningless laps and go to the garage. But he'll have a real ride in 2011 and a chance for some decent finishes with the No. 47 Toyota for JTG/Daugherty Racing.

Richard Petty Motorsports trying to survive week to week: After the financial crash of George Gillett's empire, Petty managed to regain control of the team by finding new investors and placing RPM on solid footing in what will be a new-and-improved two-car operation with A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose.

Two Cup races at Fontana: Auto Club Speedway has one Cup race next year, which comes in March. Hopefully, most of the seats will be filled for the first time in a long time.

The Chase opener in New Hampshire: The playoff starts at Chicagoland Speedway in 2011, adding another 1.5-mile oval to the Chase.

A Sunday afternoon race at Texas in April: For the first time, the spring Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway will be a Saturday night show.

Jimmie Johnson winning the Cup championship: Five-Time won't become Six-Time in 2011. Too many other teams and drivers are nipping at his heels now. No one stays on top forever, although it's hard to remember the last time someone besides JJ won this thing.

As far as the bookmakers in Las Vegas are concerned, Jimmie Johnson remains the man to beat for the Sprint Cup.

Johnson's recent woes on the track haven't dropped him from the top of the betting line in Vegas.

Johnson is ninth in the points standings. He has fallen seven spots after posting finishes of 22nd or worse in five of the last seven races.

But the summer slump hasn't stopped bookmakers from placing Johnson as the favorite to win his fifth consecutive title.

Heading into the open weekend, two races before the start of the Chase, Johnson is listed at 7-to-2 at the Las Vegas Hilton. Kevin Harvick is second at 9-to-2.

[+] Enlarge
Clint Bowyer
John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCARClint Bowyer is the least-favored driver in the top 12 by Las Vegas oddmakers, but 20-to-1 isn't too bad.

Why is Johnson favored, you ask? Two reasons. First, Johnson's won four in a row. That alone is a darn good reason to keep him on top.

But there's also a statistical reason. If the Chase started today, Johnson would begin the playoff on top, tied with Denny Hamlin. Both drivers have a series-best five victories. Hamlin is 5-to-1 on the betting line.

Harvick and Kyle Busch, each with three victories, would start the playoff 20 points back. Busch is listed at 5-to-1 with Hamlin.

Jeff Gordon, winless this season but second in the points standings, is next on the betting list at 7-to-1. Rounding out the top six is winless Tony Stewart at 10-to-1.

Kurt Busch, who has two wins and will be the only Dodge driver in the Chase, is 12-to-1.

Greg Biffle, the only other Chase contender with a victory this season, is listed at 15-to-1. Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards is slightly better at 12-to-1, and RFR driver Matt Kenseth is 18-to-1.

Jeff Burton, Harvick's teammate at Richard Childress Racing, is also 18-to-1. RCR driver Clint Bowyer, who is hoping to hold on to a 100-point advantage in the 12th-place bubble spot, is the long shot of the Chase boys at 20-to-1.

But 20-to-1 isn't much of a long shot. What it means, at least in the eyes of the bookies, is the 2010 Chase is wide open.

Johnson remains the favorite for now, but not by much. If the Vegas oddsmakers are right, this is going to be a fun Chase to watch.

Jack Roush is looking for something, anything really, that will give his teams a spark and get his Ford drivers in Victory Lane.

Change set-ups, change strategy, change crew chiefs, whatever it takes.

The latest big move is a new crew chief for Matt Kenseth, his third this season.

It isn't desperation. Roush doesn't operate that way. He's the most calculating guy you could ever meet.

Other than Stephen Hawking, you would be hard pressed to find a more technically knowledgeable man than Roush. He can turn one simple question into a five-paragraph answer that sounds like text from an engineering manual.

[+] Enlarge
jack Roush
AP Photo/Matt SlocumJack Roush, inspecting spark plugs, would likely be one of the few owners in the garage that really knows what he's looking for.

For example, on Friday, Roush was asked how practice went at New Hampshire.

"We tried to organize for kinematics on the front suspension," he said. "We hoped we would find a solution to the worst problem we've had all year, which is getting the cars to turn in the middle of the corner. I haven't been debriefed by each driver or crew chief, but, by all appearances, we've still got some of the same problem. There has not been an immediate solution."

And that's the short version, folks. But Roush is searching for answers in a winless first-half of the Cup season for the four Roush Fenway Racing drivers -- Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and David Ragan.

Roush made an executive decision this week in swapping spots with Todd Parrott and Jimmy Fennig, putting Fennig on the pit box with Kenseth. Parrott takes over as the manager of the RFR Research and Development Dept.

"We're continually looking for the best chemistry between driver and crew chief," Roush said. "A crew chief needs to get all the energy that's in the driver and everything the driver recognizes he needs, and sometimes, the things he doesn't recognize he needs."

Obviously, Roush didn't think that was happening with Parrott, who replaced Drew Blickensderfer in February after the Daytona 500.

Kenseth is the highest ranking RFR driver. He's seventh in the standings with four top-5s and eight top-10s. But Roush sees that as underachieving for a driver as skilled as Kenseth.

Roush felt a change was necessary after the No. 17 team had issues in the inspection process last weekend at Sonoma.

"We had difficulty getting through tech and that fell on the crew chief's head," Roush said Friday. "We were a little slow in the garage area. The direction was not well-defined. Except for Matt stepping in and begging forgiveness, we may not have gotten our car in the qualifying line to make the deadline.

"So the combination of the plan not working and the strategies not working as well as they had in the first few races with Todd resulted in our making the decision that the team wasn't where it needed to be."

The truth is things haven't been the same for Kenseth since Robbie Reiser left the No. 17 pit box at the end of 2007 to take over as the general manager at RFR. Kenseth now is on his fourth crew chief since Reiser moved up.

"It does seem like I'm pretty hard on crew chiefs lately, that's for sure," Kenseth said Friday.

Does he want Reiser back?

"Robbie had a chance to come back," Kenseth said. "But the problem is, Robbie wants to do everything. He didn't want to leave his post at the front office. I think he probably would have come and filled in for the rest of the year if he could try to do both, but there just are not enough hours in a day."

So Kenseth will try to make it work with Fennig, who has seen it all from the pit box. Fennig has worked as a crew chief for Bobby Allison, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch, among others, in his 25-year career.

"Matt and I worked together on a Nationwide car a few years ago," Fennig said. "I think we've got a good relationship, so we'll see what happens. Maybe the direction I was heading in R&D will help turn things around. We might try some of that stuff with Matt."

Roush went in a long and detailed explanation of RFR's problems -- simulation issues, aero mapping, front-end geometry, etc.

But the bottom line is the RFR guys need to find a spark.

"I'm sure people wonder how my mind works," Roush said. "It's the same as I look at other folks that are in decision-making positions and wonder how their minds work."