News & Media

Caraviello: Biffle's rise proves impossible can come true

May 02, 2012, David Caraviello,

He started too late, not in go-karts as a child like so many of his contemporaries did, but in local hobby stocks when he was in high school. He grew up in a part of the country far removed from events on the sport's most elite level, and he was ultimately hired on blind faith. He made his leap into NASCAR's national divisions only to watch his career stagnate and see other, younger drivers zip by on their way up the career ladder.

Greg Biffle never should have made it. The odds were too long, his hometown was too remote, his development process was all wrong. By all accounts he should have been one of those late-in-life bloomers who owned his local short track, the kind of bullring hot-shoe who always left the competition wondering how good he could have been in the big leagues had he only gotten a break. Because breaks are supposed to go to kids who have been wheeling go-karts since they were 3, and were primed for the Sprint Cup level by the time they could walk. Not guys like Biffle, who didn't get his first ride at NASCAR's national level until he was almost 30.

Catching up

Greg Biffle started in racing at a time when most others are well on their way to NASCAR's top levels.

And yet here he is, leading the points for seven consecutive weeks heading to monstrous and unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway, a race winner again for the first time in two years, seemingly a championship contender on equal footing with Roush Fenway teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. And in the process, this 41-year-old throwback continues to be an inspiration for local racers chasing the dream, as well an antidote to all the skeptics who believe you have to bring sponsorship money to the table or have the right last name in order to make it big.

Biffle had none of that. What he had was a dad who was a car guy, who spent a lot of time in his garage working on a flat-bottom boat, but who wouldn't let his son have a go-kart because there was nowhere nearby to ride it. Although Biffle grew up in Vancouver, Wash., just across the Columbia River from greater Portland, from a NASCAR perspective he might as well have been in Siberia. He didn't start driving race cars until he was in high school, which by today's racing standards seems like middle age. Even that seemed to happen almost on impulse, with Biffle being in the right place at the time, a theme that would come to repeat itself throughout his career.

"My dad was a car guy, grew up in Southern California and moved to the northwest," Biffle said. "Growing up, I was interested in cars and had motorcycles my whole life. I begged him for a go-kart about every chance I got. We didn't really live in an area that was conducive to that. I got my first car when I was 15, and I worked for a guy that he developed a friendship with that had an automotive machine shop that had an oval track for cars. My dad and I went to the oval track race on a regular Friday or Saturday night and watched the hobby stocks and the whole show. I was excited and so was my dad, and we went home and built a car."

At an age when NASCAR hopefuls are vying for rides in developmental programs, Biffle was just building his first car. The odds were long, and surely he knew it. Biffle eventually became part-owner of a bar, opened his own chassis-building shop, did the kind of things grown-ups do when they're preparing to make a living. Even so, the fever held fast. He began competing in NASCAR Weekly Racing Series at Portland Speedway and Tri-City Raceway in West Richland, Wash. He won track championships, but a lot of drivers win track championships and never take the next step. Nobody from NASCAR's top divisions was calling Greg Biffle. Nobody was watching him race. Nobody knew he existed, way out there in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, seemingly as far from Charlotte as the moon.

His break came in, of all things, a made-for-TV event. Winter Heat was a series of races at Tucson Raceway Park that networks aired as NASCAR programming during the Cup offseason. It lasted just five years, but the timing was right for Biffle, who trekked down to Arizona and won the late model championship. It still might have all happened in a vacuum had one of the broadcasters calling the event not seen something in Biffle -- including a little of himself. Benny Parsons had broken into NASCAR late in life, after playing high school football and working at a gas station and driving a taxicab in Detroit. He knew a little something about struggle, and how hard it could be to get noticed.

All-Star fever

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So when he saw Biffle dominate the Winter Heat series of late 1995 and early 1996, he knew it was the only chance this kid from Washington State would ever have to advance his career. The name stuck in Parson's head, and a year later he found out that Jack Roush was looking for a driver for a Truck Series program, which sports-car ace Tommy Kendall had turned down. "Jack," Parsons told him, "don't forget Biffle." Parsons, NASCAR's foremost everyman driver, had found his successor.

Suddenly, and amazingly, it all happened, and Biffle was behind the wheel of what would soon become a championship-winning No. 50 truck for the team then called Roush Racing. Kyle Busch broke into the Truck Series when he was 16. Biffle did the same when he was 29, somehow overcoming the facts that he didn't bring sponsorship money with him, that he didn't arise through some developmental pipeline, that he came from a place many couldn't find on a map. He should be back in Washington state, running his chassis-building business and racing on local tracks. Instead, he's leading the Sprint Cup Series. That Greg Biffle made it the way he did, at the age he did, in the sport he did is proof that the impossible can be made possible.

Of course, it wasn't all a fairy tale. Once he reached NASCAR's national level, he discovered frustrations of a different kind. Former (and younger) teammate Kurt Busch leapfrogged past him into the Cup Series. When Biffle himself finally made that same transition in 2003, his Nationwide Series team was promoted wholesale along with him, and the support group simply wasn't ready for the step up in class. The two cars his new No. 16 team had built for the Daytona 500 were so slow, they had to borrow a vehicle from Kenseth's fleet to make the event. Although Biffle won a race that summer at Daytona on a fuel-mileage gamble, it was essentially a wasted year, and it took many months and several personnel moves before things began to change.

But such concerns belong to drivers who have already made it, those for whom the struggle to just get noticed is a thing of the past. Greg Biffle now leads the Sprint Cup points and has his best chance in years to make another bid at NASCAR's triple crown, to perhaps add a premier-series championship to those he already owns from what are now called the Camping World Truck and Nationwide ranks. No driver has ever done that; should Biffle become the first, he'd almost certainly put himself in position to one day be considered for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But nothing would be as impressive as what it took for him just to have the chance.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Watch Greg Biffle's season highlights below: