This could be Greg Biffle’s year — and the driver of the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford certainly thinks it is.
Biffle is in a unique position among NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers, the same unique position he’s occupied since 2002, when he won the Nationwide Series championship.
Biffle was then and currently is the only driver who can win NASCAR racing’s trifecta: championships in all three of the major touring series. The first seven races of the 2012 season suggest that this is the year he’s likely to accomplish the feat.
Biffle’s rise to the highest level of NASCAR racing was meteoric. In 1998, the Jack Roush protege was rookie of the year in the Camping World Truck Series. In 2000, he won the Truck Series championship.
A year later, Biffle was rookie of the year in the Nationwide Series. In 2001, he won the title. No other driver has won both Truck and Nationwide championships, though reigning Trucks champ Austin Dillon, currently third in the Nationwide standings, is a threat to do so this year.
Biffle came close to completing the triple in 2005, when he and teammate Carl Edwards tied for second in the standings behind Tony Stewart. Biffle won a career-best six races that year but fell 35 points short in the championship battle.
In 2008, Biffle won the first two races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but contact from Edwards in the fourth Chase race, at Talladega, triggered a wreck that took out half of the championship contenders and derailed Biffle’s title run. He finished a distant third in the final standings, 217 points behind Jimmie Johnson.
The 2012 season, however, has a different feel. “The Biff” has occupied the top rung in the standings for five races now. He finished third in each of the first three events of the season, wresting the lead from Phoenix winner Denny Hamlin on March 11 at Las Vegas.
But here’s the rub. Nineteen races down the road, after the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup is set at Richmond, it won’t matter how many weeks Biffle has led the standings. The only thing that will matter is how many races he’s won, and that’s why Saturday night’s victory in the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway is so important and so telling.
Chase qualifiers get three points for each win they achieve in the 26-race regular season. That’s all that separates one driver from the next at the start of the 10-race playoff, after points are reset to a base of 2,000 each for Chase drivers.
As Tony Stewart proved so dramatically last year, a driver can get hot in the Chase and storm to the championship, no matter what other competitors might have accomplished in the first 26 races.
The good news for Biffle is that he doesn’t have to worry about making the Chase — categorically. In eight seasons since the Chase was introduced in 2004, the points leader after seven races has never failed to qualify for the playoff. In three cases (Kurt Busch in 2004; Johnson in 2006 and 2010), the leader after seven races has gone on to win the championship.
Those are excellent odds, and the speed and determination Biffle showed Saturday night in breaking a 49-race winless streak suggests that he and his team have the wherewithal to do what a driver must do repeatedly in the final 10 races — win.
Though Biffle’s rise through the ranks appeared effortless in the early years, the driver doesn’t see it that way.
“When I moved from the Truck Series to Nationwide, it was a huge step,” Biffle said. “It was much, much harder. And when I moved from Nationwide to the Cup series, I had no idea that the competition was going to be what it was.
“I knew it was going to be hard, but, man, it’s tough, and there are a lot of great drivers in this sport — and a lot of good equipment. I knew it was going to be hard, but this year is my year, so I’m going to keep after it all the way to Homestead.”