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2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 16 3M Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Owners: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Greg Erwin
Years with current team: 9
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 2nd (2005)
Hometown: Vancouver, Wash.
Born: December 23, 1969
There comes a time in each driver’s career when he finds himself at a crossroads, and 2011 could be that year for Greg Biffle. Both his sponsorship and contract run through the end of the season, which could be a blessing or a curse depending on how well the situation is handled.
You might think it foolish for Roush Fenway Racing to let go of a driver who has finished in the top 10 in points the last three seasons and remains hungry in his bid to become the first driver to win a title in each of NASCAR’s three top series. But at 41 years old, Biffle is advancing in age to the point that sponsorship isn’t a slam dunk in the boardroom, especially since he’s not exactly Mr. Personality and is more comfortable welding sheet metal than pitching product.
To get the right type of financial backing over the long term, he must perform at a title-contending level throughout the year. Step one in that process is for the Greg Erwin-led No. 16 team to step off the rollercoaster and back on solid ground. After posting six top-10 finishes to start 2010, Biffle never had more than two straight until November, becoming an expert in between at snuffing out momentum before it started. His two victories were followed by finishes of 24th and 41st, respectively, the perfect example of how this team zigzagged all over the chart.
When it’s on, there’s potential for the 16 bunch to be the best Blue Oval team in camp. Only Carl Edwards matched Biffle’s two-victory total at Roush, and with 16 overall wins in nine seasons he’s quietly racked up some quality stats. The Erwin-Biffle pairing is nearly four years old, a stability that trickles down inside a four-car organization that plans to return the same driver, sponsor and head wrench lineup for 2011. With Biffle bringing up the rear of an RFR four-five-six points finish, it’s important to note that RFR’s three top teams remained successful even in a down year. And just like his teammates, Biffle ended last season on a hot streak with three straight top 10s, leaving him hopeful for 2011.
“I think we are positioned really good for (this) year. I expect a lot of exciting things for 2011,” he said last November. “Maybe four or five wins and a run for the title, I hope.”
Let’s hope the parts and pieces get that message. Mechanical failures seem to hit Biffle at the worst possible time, two costly engine DNFs mixed with countless other complaints about brakes, drive trains … seemingly every part under the sun. And as Denny Hamlin showed last year, it’s not the number of wins that will finally dethrone Jimmie Johnson and the Hendrick juggernaut, but rather consistency in the final 10 races. That’s something Biffle has struggled with, earning only nine top 10s in the last 20 Chase races coupled with four results outside the top 20.
Reliability issues boil down to the FR9 engine, prepped and ready for its first full season of competition in 2011. The horsepower it’s produced has been magical, but despite delays in production, a handful of failures late in the postseason leave many wondering if further tuneups are needed. The transition at Richard Petty Motorsports could also play a factor with Biffle, who credits research from that “B” program with turning around the organization last summer. With only a two-car program, new investors and a different support system, it’s unclear how much help it will be should RFR engineering fall behind in 2011.
Biffle and the Ford camp certainly have reason to be optimistic based on how the season ended, but so do teammates Edwards and Matt Kenseth, both of whom have found more success late in the season. While the talent and equipment are there to get the job done, when there are more attractive options to choose from within your own program, chances are the title won’t tilt your way. Just call it “The Jeff Gordon Rule.”
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
The recurring word used to describe Biffle is “fast.” A crew chief says, “Roush Fenway’s whole operation was off for the first half of the year, then the whole team started improving. Usually that carries over. That was the case with RCR last year, and it’s probably going to be a big year for Roush Fenway for the same reason.”
Another crew chief says, “You know what? Biffle is as close to a throwback as any driver out there. He paid his dues, didn’t get to Cup when he was a kid, and his attitude, that gritty determination, reminds me of guys from a couple decades back.”
A familiar face in the garage says, “I like Biffle’s no-nonsense style. He’s a straight shooter. He always gives it his best. Biffle reminds me of Mark Martin sometimes.”
Looking at Checkers: He’s really turned it on at Kansas the last four years with two wins and two third-place finishes.
Pretty Solid Pick: Biffle has 10 top 10s at both Michigan (16 starts) and Dover (17).
Good Sleeper Pick: He’s not thought of as a short tracker, but he has 10 top 10s in 16 starts at Bristol.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Martinsville. Just stay away.
Insider Tip: Thirteen of his 16 career Cup wins have come on the 1.5- and 2-mile ovals. He’s basically Carl Edwards without the backflip. Or the muscles.
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 19
Laps Led: 543
Laps Completed: 10,410
Lead Lap Finishes: 25
Bonus Points: 70
Races Led: 12
Average Start: 15.9
Average Finish: 15.4
After First 26 Races: 7th
Final Points Standing: 6th
Driver Rating: 88.4 (12th)