Pecking order gets interesting
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Greg Biffle said it with a straight face. He never smiled or flinched. He never planted his tongue inside his cheek, or at least enough that anyone could see.
He was almost believable.
"I still think the 99 is the No. 1 team at Roush [Fenway Racing]," the Sprint Cup points leader said of teammate Carl Edwards' team. Edwards is 11th in points.
That might be the perception considering all the money, time and effort RFR and Ford put into re-signing Edwards to a long-term deal last season. It was almost like a coronation.
But if you know Biffle at all, you understand he doesn't believe Edwards has a thing on him in the talent department. Any driver that thinks he's second fiddle to another, whether it's on his own team or not, isn't worth having.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't have a championship, hasn't won in 136 races and has only 18 career wins, but believes he's every bit as good as five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who has 55 wins at Hendrick Motorsports.
"Nah, I don't," Earnhardt said when asked if Johnson was better than him. "He's a helluva racecar driver, but I feel I'm the best. That's the way you've got to feel.
"I feel I'm smarter than everybody and I can drive better than everybody. I know a lot of people ain't going to agree with that, but I feel pretty strong about it."
There's no question these drivers are having better seasons than their teammates heading into Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway. Biffle has a win, five finishes of sixth or better and no finish worse than 13th for a 19-point edge over second-place teammate Matt Kenseth and Earnhardt.
Edwards hasn't finished better than fifth and has two finishes of 17th or worse.
Earnhardt has five top-10s, including three finishes of second or third, and no finish worse than 15th. Johnson, despite a pair of seconds and despite leading more laps than his HMS teammate, is eighth in points.
But if you ask who is the better driver in both cases, more times than not Edwards and Johnson will get the nod.
"I'm fine with that," Biffle said. "Then there's not much pressure. I had been 49 races without a win [until Texas]. How many races has it been since Junior won? I'm glad I'm not in that position. Everybody keeps asking, 'When's he going to win? When he's going to win?' I don't want that pressure.
"They weren't coming to me going, 'Greg, it's been 44 races since you won. Greg, it's been 46 races since you won.' That's part of being a little under the radar."
It's also part of being on one of the top multi-car operations in the garage. Whether anybody wants to admit it, there is a pecking order. Johnson was considered the No. 2 driver to Jeff Gordon at HMS until he surpassed Gordon's four championships.
Edwards was considered the second- or third-best driver at RFR at one time behind 2003 champion Kenseth and Biffle. But since he won nine races in 2008 and finished second in points he's been considered No. 1, particularly when there was a danger of him going somewhere else.
But does Biffle believe Edwards is No. 1?
"That's what I was told," he said, still with a straight face. "I simply agreed."
In truth, Biffle considers himself, Edwards and Kenseth all "damn good racecar drivers."
But in this world where seemingly everything has to be ranked, there has to be a pecking order. At Roush, regardless of the current points standings, it's Edwards, Kenseth and Biffle. At Hendrick it's Johnson, Gordon, Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne.
"A lot of it is perception, especially at our place," Johnson said. "At our place the team that is lowest on the totem pole typically has more focused on it to improve that program.
"Teams winning and winning championships have a lot less focus on them because it's working."
There is some truth to that. Biffle was horrible a year ago, finishing 16th in points and going winless for only the second time in his Cup career. So team owner Jack Roush spent much of the offseason shoring up the No. 16 team, from engineers to pit crew members.
A lot of it is perception, especially at our place. At our place the team that is lowest on the totem pole typically has more focused on it to improve that program.” -- Jimmie Johnson
"Teams winning and winning championships have a lot less focus on them because it's working.
The same with Earnhardt. Many of Rick Hendrick's moves the past two seasons have been to make the No. 88 team championship-caliber.
"There is a bit of a pecking order, and it really comes down to what you've done lately," Earnhardt said. "Jimmie and Jeff will always carry a certain role in that company that I will probably never achieve just due to them being there that long and having that trust built up with Rick and all the employees there.
"I never felt like that was a disadvantage for me. I felt like I have everything they have."
What Earnhardt doesn't have is a championship. Because of that you probably won't find anybody outside the Earnhardt family tree -- I say this because NASCAR's most popular driver has taken up researching his -- that agrees Earnhardt is a better driver than Johnson.
But Earnhardt will tell you with a straight face he's better, just as Biffle when pushed will tell you he's better than Edwards regardless of what he said during his press conference.
"Well, the question to me was 'the 99 is the premier team at Roush and is the No. 1 flagship team: How do you feel about that?' " Biffle said. "So, I said, 'That's fine. He's the flagship team.' "
You almost believe he believed it.
Maybe that's the beauty of the sport people are forgetting as they focus on whether the racing is good or resurfacing tracks has ruined the sport.
Every week, for 36 weekends of the year, a driver has a chance to be better than everyone else in the field. You don't get that in other sports where you can only beat one team each week, and speculation as to who is better than the other is just that -- speculation.
"I don't think in terms of who's the No. 1 team," Edwards said. "I don't think Jack thinks that way. As for who is the No. 1 team [this season] stay tuned. It could change at any moment."
He can say that with a straight face and mean it.