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Original Issue

Sweet 16

Greg Biffle's no young gun, but at 35 he has the talent--and, finally, the car--to make a run at the Nextel Cup title

Dressed in his red-white-and-blue race uniform, Greg Biffle strolled through the garage at Talladega Superspeedway last Friday. As he neared his team's hauler, a group of autograph hounds hurriedly approached, fighting for position like a pack of drivers headed for the finish line. Biffle whipped out a pen, just happy to be recognized. But the fans blew past him as if he were a tire changer, making a beeline instead for Jeff Gordon, who was walking several feet behind Biffle.

"I'm certainly not a guy who has a high profile," Biffle said later, as he sat in the hauler looking over practice times for the Nextel Cup field. "But I'll tell you what. I think I've got as good a chance as anyone to win the title this season."

While autograph seekers have yet to catch on to him, no racer would dare overlook the 35-year-old Biffle, who won the Craftsmen Truck Series in 2000 and the Busch Series in '02, and is having a breakout season on the cup circuit with two victories already this year. On Sunday, despite wrestling with a car that was handling poorly for much of the Aaron's 499, Biffle was running second to Jimmie Johnson with 50 laps to go. It appeared that even if he didn't win, Biffle would at least collect his sixth top 10 finish in nine races this year--until he got caught up in a six-car wreck with two laps remaining.

Biffle wound up in 13th place and now stands fourth in the point standings, one spot behind Gordon, who took the checkered flag at Talladega to solidify his status as the driver to beat on the restrictor-plate tracks. (Much to the chagrin of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team, which won nine of 12 superspeedway races from 2001 through '03, Gordon has taken four of the last five plate races.)

Biffle and his Roush Racing teammate Kurt Busch, last season's Nextel champion, have emerged as the only drivers who consistently challenge the powerhouse Hendrick duo of Gordon and Johnson, the points leader. "I definitely [could have finished in the top 5], and that gives me confidence in coming back to Talladega during the Chase," Biffle said after the race. "We'll be strong here again."

Though he finished a middling 17th in the point standings in 2004, Biffle and his crew first showed signs of what was to come this year when they won at Michigan last August. Even team owner Jack Roush has acknowledged that he didn't provide Biffle with championship-caliber equipment when the driver made the jump to the Nextel series in 2003; Biffle's race shop at Roush, for example, wasn't even completed until a few months into his rookie season. Though Biffle won the Pepsi 400 at Daytona that season, it wasn't until the middle of '04 that the performance of Biffle's cars finally caught up to his driv-ing talent. Not coincidently, he's been among the front-runners ever since.

"My first year and a half was a disaster," says Biffle. "I'm 35 years old, so I'm not a young guy, and '03 and most of '04 were just a waste of time. But now everything has finally come together."

"Greg will drive as hard as his car will allow, and that's why he's won at every level he's ever raced at," says Robbie Loomis, the crew chief for Gordon. "Greg sometimes pushes things a little too hard, but he's proving to be one of the best drivers at this level. We certainly keep an eye on him."

Fairly soon fans patrolling the garage will be looking out for him too. ■

Need A Ride?

WHEN IT comes to success on the racetrack, Michael Waltrip will never be confused with his brother, Darrell, a three-time Winston Cup champion in the 1980s. But over the last two weeks Michael (right) has been running as strongly as anyone in the Nextel Cup series. Following a runner-up finish at Phoenix on April 23, Waltrip placed third at Talladega on Sunday; those high finishes lifted him from 28th to 16th in the point standings.

Can Waltrip, whose spot on the DEI race team is rumored to be in jeopardy, keep this momentum going and qualify for the Chase for the Championship? The answer will go a long way toward determining whether he'll return to DEI in 2006. Talk in the garage has Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s buddy Martin Truex Jr., who's running a limited Cup schedule this year, possibly replacing Waltrip on a fulltime basis in 2006. Truex drove a car co-owned by Little E to victory in last Saturday's Busch Series race at Talladega.

"If you look at my career statistics, it's not pretty," says Waltrip, who has won only four times in 615 career Cup starts. "This is the first time that I've had back-to-back top five finishes. I'm not proud of that stat, but I think our team is moving along pretty good." --L.A.






The hard-charging Biffle has two wins and three other top 10 finishes this year.