OVER THE first 26races of the 2008 season, Greg Biffle was little more than an afterthought inthe Sprint Cup Series, a driver so far off everyone's radar that he couldstroll through the garage in his street clothes and go largely unrecognized byfans.
After all, hefailed to win a race and had seven finishes of 20th or worse. Though he didmake the Chase, he—like virtually every other driver—got lost in the shadow ofthe regular season's Big Three: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson.Yet on Sunday before the Camping World RV 400 at Kansas Speedway, there wasBiffle in front of his car on pit road, surrounded by three television cameras,receiving high fives and thumbs-up from rival drivers, owners, even NASCARofficials. He commanded everyone's attention, which is what happens when youcome out of nowhere as the surprise of the Chase.
After winning thefirst two Chase races, in Loudon, N.H., and Dover, Del., the 39-year-old Bifflecontinued his unlikely rise to title contender in Kansas. He ran in the top 10for most of the race and passed Jeff Gordon on the final lap to finish third.Once again, though, Johnson and Edwards were hogging the spotlight just ahead,as Johnson held off a hard-charging Edwards for the win. Johnson's fifthvictory of the season gave him a 10-point lead over Edwards in the standings,with Biffle 20 points further back.
"It's alittle discouraging to finish third and be behind the two guys I'mchasing," Biffle said. "But I like our chances. There's not a singletrack coming up where I don't think we can win."
Biffle'srelatively quiet regular season (he wound up eighth in points) was somewhat bydesign. Unlike many teams, Biffle and his crew chief Greg Erwin spent themajority of their midweek test sessions preparing not for upcomingregular-season races but for tracks the circuit visits during the Chase. Thiscost the team in the short term but is proving a boon in the long term. "Weare so much smarter the way we test now," Erwin says. "Everything isabout getting ready for the Chase and performing when it matters."
The schedule setsup well for Biffle. Four of the last seven tracks are 1.5-mile ovals—the typeof layout on which Biffle has a series-high four top five finishes in his lastfive starts. What's his secret? Growing up in Vancouver, Wash., Biffle cut hisracing teeth on half-mile concrete ovals, on which speeds hit triple digits.Most NASCAR drivers learn how to race on either dirt or quarter-mile tracks,where the speeds are far slower. "You go fast at these 1.5-mile tracks[upward of 190 mph], and you don't have much room to operate," Biffle says,"but I've been dealing with those conditions all my life, which is why Ilove these 1.5-milers."
Biffle's averagefinish in the Chase, heading into this week's race at Talladega, is 1.7. He maynot yet be the favorite to win the Cup, given how strongly Johnson and Edwardscontinue to run, but—even as Kyle Busch has faded from contention (box)—Biffleis making sure the Chase still has a Big Three.
ONLY AT SI.COMLars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.
The good news for Kyle Busch? He had his best finish of the Chase in Sunday'srace at Kansas. The bad news? Thanks to a fuel-pressure problem, that finishwas 28th. The winningest driver in the regular season is now 311 points out offirst—and effectively out of the title hunt.
What team has been the biggest disappointment in the Chase? Joe Gibbs Racing.After taking nine of the 26 regular-season checkered flags, JGR drivers arewinless in the Chase and stacked up at the bottom of the standings, with DennyHamlin 10th, Tony Stewart 11th and Busch 12th.
At Kansas, Jeff Gordon had his best race since late June, finishing fourth andclimbing from eighth to sixth in the points. Gordon is in prime position tomake a move; he has 18 wins at the next three tracks on the schedule—Talladega,Charlotte and Martinsville.
JASON SMITH/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
SWEET 16 Third at Kansas, Biffle (inset) trails Johnson (bottom) by just 30 points.
JASON E. MICZEK/AP
STEPHEN A. ARCE/CAL SPORT MEDIA
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