Previews, predictions and stats for Greg Biffle and the No. 16 team
When a driver turns in the most consistent season-long effort of his career, yet still isn’t a factor when the championship fight boils down to the final moments, the offseason head-scratching can be nearly maddening. That’s what Greg Biffle has dealt with since NASCAR took its short winter break.
“(2012) was our first year as a full team, and I’m happy for (crew chief) Matt Puccia to make the Chase and finish fifth,” Biffle says. “On the other hand, it’s a little disappointing that we didn’t win the title or get closer than we did, so it’s kind of bittersweet.”
Biffle, 43, put on one heck of a show last year as the only driver to finish every race, while preserving an interesting streak of winning two Cup Series races in every even-numbered year of his career as a full-time Cup driver. Leading the point standings for over half of the season, he was the surprise front man for a Roush Fenway Racing team whose money and exposure have been built around expensive signee Carl Edwards.
The change was both surprising and welcome for the driver of the No. 16 Roush Fenway Ford, who failed to make the Chase or win a race in 2011. But after a strong, two-win regular season, Biffle and Puccia couldn’t translate the speed to the Chase.
The fact that Biffle couldn’t work his magic in NASCAR’s postseason remains one of the more surprising points on his résumé. The Chase is inordinately packed with tracks right in Biffle’s wheelhouse — including five 1.5-mile and two-mile circuits and the one-mile, banked fast track in Dover. Tracks of that length have long been Biffle’s bread and butter, as he’s posted 15 of his 18 career Sprint Cup wins at facilities that play host to intermediate layouts.
But Biffle, a playoff participant in four of the last five seasons, hasn’t been able to keep pace in trophy-deciding time. He hasn’t won on a 1.5-mile oval in the Chase since 2010 and went the entire 2012 edition of the postseason without a finish inside the top 3.
It seems the Biffle-Puccia duo, which gave 100 percent during the regular season, may have been overestimated by showing all their cards from Day 1. For better or worse, the top teams use the tail end of the regular season as a test, and for Biffle, who has struggled to maintain consistency year-to-year, making the Chase too often is the test.
Looking to 2013, Biffle figures to be right in the mix for a slot in NASCAR’s postseason once again. After all, he has plenty going for him. His No. 16 team will be in line for the top equipment available within the Ford camp, and with the departure of longtime Roush mainstay — and Biffle’s good buddy — Matt Kenseth, he’ll inherit the tag of team veteran. It can’t hurt, either, for Ford’s overall program to bring aboard the race team that became the first non-Chevrolet organization to win a Sprint Cup title in eight seasons.
Penske Racing’s arrival to the Blue Oval brigade will change resource allocation from the manufacturer, but the decision and announcement were made early enough last season that team co-owner Jack Roush is prepared to make the shift.
With Puccia’s return — he has been atop Biffle’s pit box since the 19th race of the 2011 season — not only will Biffle have consistency for in-race setup adjustments, but he also knows that Roush Fenway is firmly behind him for at least two more seasons, as the driver and primary sponsor, 3M, are signed through 2014.
The problem for Biffle, of course, is so are teammates Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., younger drivers Ford considers more marketable pieces. Biffle, as much as he’s tried, has never been termed “charismatic” by the media. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday still applies, and with the manufacturer investing so much in the success of the Nos. 99 and 17, one wonders how comfortable it is seeing the No. 16 running circles around them.
Should he get over that hump, this veteran, after leading the Sprint Cup stat book in only one area last year, needs to solve his issues with top finishes in the Chase. He scored the second-most overall points a year ago, but they largely came early in the season. Standing out when everyone else tries to do the same is what Biffle must do.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
“Exciting, aggressive and obviously a fierce competitor,” a rival crew chief says of Greg Biffle. “He’s a guy who can win a lot of races and be in the hunt for a championship if he can keep a cool head.”
“Greg’s driving style is one of aggression,” another crew chief says. “That’s a good thing — you need to be aggressive. It takes you to the level that you need to be at to compete for championships. At the same time, you have to realize the risk is higher when you become more aggressive. The risk vs. the reward is much greater. When you get aggressive though, you have to have a good perspective when things go the wrong direction and be able to handle that and figure out how to get out of it. I’m not saying he melts down, but I believe he needs that piece of the puzzle to become a truly well-rounded driver.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see Biffle complete the championship trifecta,” one media member notes of the driver winning Truck, Nationwide and Cup titles. “And my belief in his ability may be stronger than some. I think his biggest obstacle is the team. Roush gets beats in the Chase. The company has to figure out what’s missing there — I don’t think it’s a Greg Biffle issue.”
Looking at Checkers: No surprises here. Biffle makes his money on the big intermediates like Texas and Michigan.
Pretty Solid Pick: More intermediates. Think Darlington, Homestead and Kansas.
Good Sleeper Pick: Those Roush cars were awfully tough at Daytona and Talladega last year. Biffle’s problem was that he was behind Matt Kenseth, not in front.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Martinsville. It ain’t pretty, folks.
Insider Tip: With 21 top 10s in 2012, Biffle showed an elite level of consistency not seen since 2005. The baffling part was that during the Chase — which consists of six intermediate tracks — he slumped to a sub top-10 average showing. They need that “extra gear.”
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