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Season's most consistent drivers struggling now

September 23, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com



Season's most consistent drivers struggling now
Biffle, Kenseth, Junior all have significant ground to make up in Chase hunt

LOUDON, N.H. -- All season, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth have been among NASCAR's most consistent drivers, combining to lead the point standings after 23 of the first 25 races.

But with the standings reset, the Chase for the Sprint Cup is proving to be a different animal.

Less-than-inspiring performances in Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway left all three grasping at straws and gasping for breath in the Chase.

Biffle started 13th, but slipped to 17th, the worst finish among the 12 Chase contenders. He dropped one stop in the standings, falling from eighth to ninth, 33 points behind new series leader Jimmie Johnson.

"We were doing really well in the middle part of the race and I thought, 'Man, we've got something.' We got up to 10th and then just went straight backwards. I don't know what happened."

--GREG BIFFLE

"It's unfortunate. We're better than this," Biffle's crew chief Matt Puccia said.

"It's hard to keep the motivation going when you have runs like this. But we've got some good race tracks coming up in front of us. We can go out and win at every single one of them. We just need to put this behind us."

Biffle, the Sprint Series points leader after 14 of the first 25 races this season, beat a hasty retreat from NHMS after climbing from his 3M Ford.

"We were doing really well in the middle part of the race," he said, "and I thought, 'Man, we've got something.' We got up to 10th and then just went straight backwards. I don't know what happened.

"Our car just didn't have any grip right when we unloaded off the truck and [we] never fixed it. We were way loose in the corner and had no rear grip. We chattered the front tires. We chattered the rear tires. There, at the end, we chattered all four. So, it was just back and forth with all four tires chattering but no grip at all."

Puccia, who tried a fresh setup after finishing ninth on the relatively-flat mile in July, briefly thought the team had things figured out. But Biffle never had a car capable of running in the top 10.

"We started off and [I thought we] were decent," Puccia said. "We needed to work on it a little bit and I thought we were going to be in good shape. But, at the end of the day, we just didn't keep up on the race track enough. It was a struggle."

Kenseth, Biffle's Roush Fenway teammate, dug a hole by qualifying 25th. He cracked the top 10 a third of the way into the 300-lap race, but slid back and finished 14th. That left him 11th in points, ahead of only Jeff Gordon in the Chase and 45 points behind Johnson.

"Last week was last week and this week we got everything we could get out of our car," said Kenseth, who was hoping for improvement after his 18th-place finish in the Geico 400 at Chicagoland. "It wasn't much better than that. I thought we had really good pit stops and did what we could for strategy.

"On a long run we had about a 10th-place car, which is probably a little bit better than we usually do here. But on short runs we weren't very good at all. Then we got that caution there at the end and that didn't work in our favor."

Earnhardt came to NHMS disappointed by his showing at Chicagoland where he started fourth but finished eighth.

At New Hampshire, a track he feels still "owes him one," Earnhardt was running ninth when NASCAR called a competition caution 42 laps into the race.

Earnhardt didn't do himself any favors when he drove too deep into his pit stall, running over the tire changer's hose. He dropped 11 places to 20th and never recovered.

Earnhardt, never lower than fourth in points from the fifth through 25th races of the season, scrambled to finish 13th. Although he remained mired in seventh place among Chase drivers, he slipped from 17 to 26 points behind the leader.

"We didn't have a spectacular car," conceded crew chief Steve Letarte. "I thought we had a good car to start and we drove inside the top 10. Then, on that pit stop, we were really long in the box. We lost all our track position and this track is not an easy place to come back."

Passing at New Hampshire is considered difficult at best.

"You can do it if you have a great car. The 11 [Denny Hamlin] proved it," Letarte said. "They came from the back like nobody's business. They had a standout car and deserved to win the race. We didn't have a standout car, so we got stuck back there with everybody else, trying to get to the front.

"I don't think we had the best car. We didn't have the best pit stops and we didn't get into the pit box the best. Add all those up and -- with a lot of good teams out here -- it's going to be hard to beat them."