News & Media


Time running out for Biffle, others in wild goose Chase

August 06, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

Time running out for Biffle, others as top 10 vs. wins has hopefuls on edge

LONG POND, Pa. -- Greg Biffle came into the Pocono Raceway media center Friday afternoon and feigned ignorance of his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards' signature on a contract extension.

But in very short order, it became obvious Biffle couldn't ignore the importance of scoring a Sprint Cup victory, and even more important, that Pocono might be the most likely place for it to occur as the Race to the Chase is down to six events with the cutoff at Richmond fastly approaching.

"A win doesn't automatically lock you in ... We know that's important and that's what we try and do every week."

--GREG BIFFLE

Biffle, who won this event a year ago, is currently 13th in the championship -- but most important, he has yet to win this season. In order to make the Chase, he either has to overcome a 46-point deficit to 10th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. or win a race and stay about where he is in the points -- provided no one else wins and jumps over him.

What will happen in these six races is as potentially baffling as the past seven years have been for Biffle, who finished second in the 2005 Cup championship. Including 2005, Biffle has scored 13 of his 16 career race wins since then, but after a six-year streak of winning at least one race a year was broken in 2009, he's only won every other year since 2008.

"Certainly we've been trying hard to win a race," said Biffle, whose last victory came in October 2010, at Kansas. "We've come close a few times and this is a place -- Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta are all great tracks for us and we feel like we can win at basically any of these race tracks. We're trying hard, getting our cars driving good.

"A win doesn't automatically lock you in, but being 13th in points, if we won a race, we would probably move up to 12th or 11th, which would put us right in that mix. We know that's important and that's what we try and do every week."

Considering his level of respect at Roush Fenway and throughout the Sprint Cup garage, it's even more puzzling Biffle's only made the Chase four of the past six years -- though a two-year "slump" occurred in 2006 and '07. Biffle said he's getting a little nervous about his current slump.

"I would have never guessed we'd be this far into the season without winning a race, after the way we finished last year," Biffle said of his one-win, four-top-five run in the season's last eight races. "We finished up really, really well; we really had some momentum. We probably would have wins at this point in the season if it weren't for the issues we've had.

"Fueling the cars and fuel mileage and things have really put a damper on our thing this year -- pit stops and things like that around the fueling -- so that's been a little bit of a drag. I'm surprised that we're 13th in points for how we've run this season."

Biffle's team got a new crew chief two races ago, as Matt Puccia moved from a Roush Fenway research and development to replace Greg Erwin, who promptly moved over to RFR ally Richard Petty Motorsports to work with A.J. Allmendinger.

"We've run really, really good but we haven't had the finishes to show for it," Biffle said. "That's better than not running very good and getting mediocre finishes and you're hoping to figure out what's wrong with your cars and how to make them better. We've got pretty dang good cars, we haven't been able to finish.

"It's not a representation of how our team has run, but that's what has happened to us all year, except for Indy. Indy [seventh] was kind of a turnaround for us, so hopefully we can continue that."

At this track, Biffle's scenario is one example of the high drama that a change NASCAR put in place at the start of this season has fashioned. The Chase is still a 12-man field, but only the top 10 are guaranteed via their points position.

If two drivers between 11th and 20th have victories, they would fill the 11th and 12th positions based on their point position and how many wins they have.

At this moment, 11th-place Denny Hamlin and 14th-place Paul Menard are in via their single victories. David Ragan is the only other driver in the top 20 who's won, and he's seven points behind Menard in the standings, in 16th.

Hamlin, who at this point last season had won five times -- including the June race at Pocono -- is far from comfortable. Four career victories here help.

"The thing realistically is that David Ragan and Paul Menard and those guys, they would have to leapfrog over us in points to knock us out of the wild card, unless they win another race," Hamlin said. "We are in a danger zone. We don't want to be where we're at, but we know we're very capable of winning this race, the next race, the next race and the one after that."

Hamlin has had one outright engine failure and a couple other races affected by engine issues.

"We're not terribly alarmed," Hamlin said. "But obviously with the reliability issues and I hate to keep going back to that, but you never know what can happen. Those guys could gain 30 points on you just like that, in one week."

Ragan's perspective on the Chase hasn't changed since he won his first career points race, in July at Daytona.

"Our mind-set here at Pocono is just to capitalize on a track that's been good to us in the past," Ragan said. "We ran OK here in the spring. We think we've got a better team, a better car this weekend than we had in the spring, but I guess regarding the wild card and making the Chase, I'll go back to what we felt like would get us in from day one and you've either got to be in the top 10 in points, I think you've got to have two wins or be in the top 12 or 13 [with one win].

"Thirteenth may get in, but I don't think so. I think you've got to be 11th or 12th in points or have two wins, so that's what we're working on. We're right there in the mix. We'd love to be sitting sixth or seventh or eighth in points right now, but we've had really fast cars -- it's just a matter of not making mistakes."

Drivers on either side of the 10th-place "demarcation line" have to either maintain the consistency they've been showing or step it up. Ryan Newman, who virtually locked himself into the Chase with a win at New Hampshire, has continued to run well and is currently eighth, 31 points clear of Hamlin.

"We're by no means locked into the Chase because of our victory," Newman said. "We're in a good position and we're in a much better position after the last three weekends than we were before that."

Newman said the status quo, which has resulted in finishes of fourth, first and 12th in his past three outings, could be good enough.

"I don't think we go out here and try anything [extraordinary] -- I don't know if there's anything that we try as far as a setup or anything like that," Newman said. "We have things that we always want to try [and] there are things that we have a list on that sometimes you don't have the guts to try on a race weekend because in hindsight you say, 'I wish I hadn't tried that' more often than not.

"Ultimately, we do what we think we need to win and sometimes when it calls for thinking out of the box or trying something because we're struggling and we need to try something, that's what you do. That's usually up to the crew chief more than it is the driver to figure out what you're struggling with and making those calls."

Most points

Six races before 2010 Chase (same tracks as this year)
DriverPoints*2011 Rank
Juan Montoya89620
Tony Stewart8739
Kyle Busch8654
Kevin Harvick8033
Ryan Newman7808
Clint Bowyer77512
Jeff Burton77525
Matt Kenseth7735
Jimmie Johnson7582

Clint Bowyer's mired in a four-race slide that's seen his best finish be 13th and in that stretch, he's fallen from eighth to 12th in the standings, punctuated by accidents at Daytona and Kentucky that resulted in finishes of 36th and 35th.

"I'm worried about getting this thing back in the Chase and taking care of business on the race track," Bowyer said. "Those two DNFs in a row killed us, took us [to] outside looking in. The wild cards are obviously taken, it looks to me like and we've got to focus on gaining as many points as possible in the next six races and get ourselves back in.

"I think that's our best chance of making the Chase is consistency and running up front and racing our way back in the Chase. That is what we are made out of with our race team and the organization at RCR. That is what is going to be getting us back in the thing as we do."

Bowyer said he's more concerned with going forward than he is with fighting his RCR teammate Menard for a spot, after Menard won last weekend at Indianapolis.

"I'm not really fighting [Menard] -- I'm not racing him," Bowyer said. "I'm racing [Earnhardt] Junior, Denny Hamlin, the guys in front of me -- [Tony] Stewart, Newman. Those are the guys you're going to have to race for ninth and 10th. Paul looks like he has a really good chance of being in the Chase using one of those wild cards, but I feel like I'm racing to be able to race my way in for ninth or 10th place."

Kyle Busch has won three races, tied for the league lead with Kevin Harvick, and he's comfortable sitting fourth in the championship.

"I think [the wild card] is great [but] I'm certainly glad we're not in that position -- I would hate to be in that spot," Busch said. "It's so easy to suffer and fall back in points that you definitely have to be consistent. For those guys that are on the bubble looking for their way in without a win, certainly they're going to have to be conscious of that."

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who despite being in eighth in points is virtually locked into the Chase via his two wins, took a fan's perspective when he wrapped up the wild-card element.

"It's making it very interesting -- basically keeps everybody in it," Gordon said. "In the past, when you were outside the top 12, let's say you're 16th or 18th -- you pretty much feel like you're out of it. Now, especially somebody like [Brad] Keselowski, who has won a race, you know he wins one more race and his chances of being in there are very, very good."

Keselowski is feeling the effects of an accident in testing last week that broke his left ankle. He's 21st in the standings, 16 points behind 20th-place Juan Montoya.

"I like the fact that it pushes people to take a little extra risk to try to win races," Gordon said. "I wish Paul Menard hadn't taken quite as much of a risk as he did last weekend [when Gordon finished second to Menard], but I think that's what it opens the door for, is somebody who is capable of winning races to still be in the Chase. So I like that."

Ragan does, as well.

"Anybody that wins a race from eighth to 20th puts more pressure on us," Ragan said. "So I think that when we go to Richmond, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th and probably 15th in points will all have a win, so it's gonna be an exciting Richmond. Like I say, if you've got two wins, I think that's gonna be very good [but] it's gonna be very exciting and I'm glad we run well at Richmond."