It’s been a few years since Greg Biffle has made a serious charge for the championship in the Sprint Cup ranks.
His last top five points finish came in 2008, when two consecutive wins to start the Chase enabled him to take third place. But in the past three seasons, Biffle only added two more wins and 22 top fives in 108 races, and was a complete non-factor last year on the way to a 16th place points finish.
But this year, despite failing to take a win so far, Biffle has had a relative stranglehold on the top of the standings, opening the year with three consecutive third place finishes. He added a pole at Bristol and a sixth place finish at Fontana to cement one of his most impressive starts since his breakout 2005 season. That year saw Biffle win six races on the way to a runner-up points finish, only 35 points behind eventual winner Tony Stewart.
The only question is whether or not Biffle can keep up the hot start.
So far, Biffle’s start of the season resembles the consistent early 2011 runs of Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards. Through five races last year, Edwards also ranked first in points. That included a win at Las Vegas, two runner-up finishes and a sixth place at Fontana as well. Edwards was far and away the most consistent driver on the schedule last year, taking 26 top-10s in 36 races despite failing to win another race.
But Roush drivers have put together such seasons even before the emergence of Biffle or Edwards. Matt Kenseth brought the organization its first championship in 2003 after winning only one race (again at Las Vegas) but scoring 25 top-10s. He took the lead through four races and never looked back all season.
Thus far, nothing Biffle has done suggests that any of that will change. The trick to putting together a similarly strong season is to minimize the damage of the bad runs, as Biffle did on Sunday. He finished a lap down, failing to complete his first lap of the season, but still finished 13th. That allowed him to come out of Martinsville still holding a six point advantage over second place Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In that case, the question shouldn’t be whether or not Biffle can keep up the hot start, because Roush teams have shown the ability more than once over the years. Meanwhile, Roush drivers are usually well-disciplined from years in the system not to throw away a good season. The real question is whether or not the style can still win a championship in the Chase era.
If not for the Chase, Edwards would have been last year’s runaway champion. But five wins in those 10 races for Stewart proved enough to win a tiebreaker for the title. In fact, it was Kenseth’s title run, juxtaposed against Ryan Newman’s eight wins that season, that led to the creation of the Chase in the first place.
But Kenseth failed to finish better than fourth in his final 10 races of 2003, running worse than 30th three times. And despite three straight runner-up finishes to close out the year, Edwards’ inability to win proved his downfall.
If team history is any indication, Biffle won’t have any problem maintaining the hot start. What’s more important is learning from past seasons and coming on strong at the end of the year. The earlier that Biffle can score a couple of race wins and effectively solidify a place in the Chase, the earlier he and crew chief Matt Puccia can put together a game plan for the end of the season.
If that works out, Biffle may just become the first driver in NASCAR history to win championships in all three national touring series this season.