Steady Biffle chases playoff improvement
Greg Biffle earned his sixth berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year, and it’s not lost on the Ford driver just how important making the sport’s postseason actually is. In fact, he believes the Chase is what offers the sport’s top drivers and teams a sense of legitimacy.
“What makes up the face of this sport is the Chase, and the Chase guys,” Biffle says. “That’s what everybody talks about from the Daytona 500 on is the 12 or 13 cars that are gonna be in the Chase. It’s really important, and that’s been our focus. Let’s face it, you can’t win the championship unless you’re in the Chase.”
This season, Biffle should expect to earn his seventh appearance in the NASCAR championship format and sixth in a row. While making a legitimate run at the title seems unlikely, it will be another postseason berth based on Biffle’s sterling consistency and strong ability to find a way to Victory Lane. Of his 11 full-time seasons, Biffle has failed to win a race just twice.
Last year, Biffle notched just one victory — he held off a hard-charging Jimmie Johnson in the June race at Michigan International Speedway — but he ultimately didn’t need it for his Chase qualification effort. Still, Biffle knew at the time that the insurance was awfully nice.
However, making the show is one thing; succeeding is another task altogether. Biffle ultimately finished ninth last season in points due in large part to a Chase effort that garnered only three top-10 finishes, one of which was a top 5. As it so often is with Biffle, his No. 16 was good enough to be within the select group of drivers, but not quite good enough to make a legitimate title run. He hasn’t been a serious candidate down the stretch since 2005.
That’s a crucial point, because Biffle enters 2014 at age 44 in the midst of a contract year with longtime Roush Fenway prospect Trevor Bayne waiting in the wings. Bayne’s progress has been tediously slow, but he has driven for Biffle’s sponsor, 3M, and has been searching for a full-time Cup opportunity since winning the 2011 Daytona 500. As we saw with Kenseth two years ago, Roush has a history of going younger as a way of doing business. Biffle’s job this year is to show that he’s still the best option.
It’ll take improvement on Biffle’s part to make that happen, despite a solid history of regular-season success. Consider that, overall, Biffle’s 2013 was a one-win affair with just four top-5 finishes and 13 top 10s. Those numbers were substantially off from the prior season and similar to 2011, a year that found him outside the Chase picture.
Even if Biffle does not improve, he’ll likely breeze into a 16-team Chase this season, though once there may be surpassed by a competitive slate of drivers who weren’t in Chase competition last fall (Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart). It’s a hungry trio, backed by the off-track PR hype that has never quite seemed to attach itself to Biffle.
A good note is that Biffle’s crew chief relationship survived some offseason reshuffling at RFR. Biffle and Matt Puccia will now work their third full season together, although you have to wonder what kind of production Roush will require early in the season’s slate. He has to have concerns that Biffle’s average start dropped more than six spots last year, the worst result in years for a driver who struggles in traffic.
Some of that problem may also be attributable to the Fords Biffle drove. While consistent (Biffle finished every race last year), he often talked about how the team was playing catch-up. Ford drivers won just six times overall and didn’t finish higher than eighth in series points.
However, the Ford camp did spend time last season lobbying NASCAR for some undisclosed concessions. The manufacturer was primarily concerned that some of NASCAR’s in-season car modifications across all makes had unfairly caused a disadvantage among the Blue Oval brigade. No direct evidence was ever made available, though.
NASCAR never made any public announcement about new allowances for the Ford teams, but at the very least, a new grille molding will be used. If it did — or if Ford found some speed through good old-fashioned research and development — then Biffle and RFR could stand an improved chance.
Otherwise, it’s difficult to envision Biffle being more than another mid-level Chase competitor in 2014. Does that mean free agency’s next up?
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Biffle knows how to win — he’s a proven champion in the Truck and Nationwide series,” one crew chief says. “And he can win on any type of track, although he hasn’t won on a road course. Biffle runs a street stock race on his farm every year and builds the car himself. That knowledge helps him share pertinent information with his race team.”
Another crew chief points to some inhibiting factors that could derail any hopes for a NASCAR “title trifecta” — at least in 2014: “While he can win, he can be very inconsistent. His personality can be a drawback, too. He is a rather dry individual. And he’s in Roush equipment, which — if you look at the success that Matt Kenseth had this season — appears to be an inhibiting factor.”
A media member who has watched Biffle his entire NASCAR career still believes in the Washington native’s talent: “I’ve always thought Biffle was a helluva wheelman. He really came out of nowhere — like, literally, the Great Northwest — to win his two championships (NNS and CWTS), but the Cup level is something entirely different. I think he has the ability, but the Roush program has been a step off since Edwards’ missed title bid in 2011.”
Looking at Checkers: We all know the “intermediate” story on Biffle, who has recorded 16 of his 19 career Cup wins at seven tracks: Auto Club, Darlington, Dover, Homestead, Kansas, Michigan and Texas.
Pretty Solid Pick: In the CoT/Gen-6 era, Biffle has managed to score five top 10s in six starts — with two third-place runs in the last four years — at Indy.
Good Sleeper Pick: Hey, have we mentioned Biffle’s success on seven specific tracks?
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Martinsville is the obvious choice, but strangely enough, Biffle has bucked the intermediate trend at Kentucky, where he’s averaged a 25.3-place finish.
Insider Tip: He’s not an A-lister, but he makes a fine selection out of the B-list when the circuit visits seven very specific tracks.
No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Sponsors: 3M/American Red Cross/Fastenal/American Dental Association
Owner: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Matt Puccia
Years with current team: 12
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 2nd (2005)
Hometown: Vancouver, Wash.
Born: Dec. 23, 1969
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro