Rookie Biffle made big splash in '98 By Brett Borden
SAN FRANCISCO (Dec. 8, 1998) Most rookies in racing are content to blend into a new series, careful not to cause any big ripples in the pool. When Greg Biffle dived into the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, he may as well have yelled "Cannonball!"
Biffle couldn't help but make a big splash. His first two races in the series produced top- five finishes. His penchant for qualifying up front made him an early factor in many races. His ability to stay there factored heavily in the season's final race, as well as the NCTS championship battle between Ron Hornaday and Jack Sprague.
On his way to winning Cintas Rookie of the Year honors, Biffle experienced the highs, the lows, and everything in between. When the dust settled, the driver of the No. 50 Grainger Racing Ford was eighth in the points standings.
Biffle entered the Chevy Trucks Challenge 250 at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando with the customary opening-race jitters.
"Yeah, I was real nervous -- whether we were going to have any crashes or anything like that," he said afterward. "I was just trying to keep my spot on the track and take my time and let the faster guys go, just run where I could and understand what the truck does at 100 laps."
He qualified 20th at Orlando and finished fifth, then started 23rd at Homestead in the Florida Dodge Dealers 400 and finished fourth. It looked like this NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series was a piece of cake. Then reality set in.
A crash at Phoenix. Jumping a restart at Portland, his home track, then crashing again. Another crash at I-70 Speedway in Odessa, Mo. Transmission problems at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International and Heartland Park Topeka. A wreck at Texas Motor Speedway, where Biffle would draw the ire of Jack Sprague.
"It was just a rookie thing, I guess," said Sprague after contact initiated by Biffle sent him bouncing through the infield. "This ain't short track racing ... What goes around comes around."
Biffle started coming around in the DieHard 200 at the Milwaukee Mile. Following a seven-race stretch where his average finish was 25.8, Biffle took to Milwaukee like Laverne & Shirley, finishing fifth. It was the first of seven finishes of eighth or better in the next 11 races. One of those Magnificent Seven was a stirring runnerup finish to fellow rookie Andy Houston in the Pennzoil/VIP Discount Auto 200.
"We want consistency at this time of the season," said Biffle before the Kroger 225 at Louisville Motor Speedway, the season's 19th race. "The Grainger team is starting to gel. Randy (Goss, his crew chief) and I are communicating well and the team has really come together. We're looking for strong finishes every weekend. If we can do that, I think our team has enough talent to win the rookie race."
About the time Biffle had put himself at the point in the rookie race, he started putting himself there in the races, too. Biffle won three straight Bud Poles, at Memphis Motorsports Park, Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill., and Martinsville Speedway. His best finish in those three races was eight, though, and that was frustrating to the Vancouver, Wash. native.
"I've never been a great qualifier, but when the green flag drops I've always been able to race with other cars or trucks and typically get to the front or make adjustments to get there. It's kind of frustrating for me that the shoe's on the other foot - we're qualifying real well but we're having trouble executing the entire race and being there at the end."
With two races to go in the season, Biffle needed to step up to hold off the hard-charging Houston. He responded with his second runner-up finish of the year in the GM Goodwrench Service Plus/AC Delco 300 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Then, when his lead in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings was trimmed to one following voting by the rookie committee in Las Vegas, he ran up front for most of the race, lost the lead with two laps to go to Jack Sprague, then settled for fifth, which was good enough to earn him the Raybestos Rookie title, if not the respect of Sprague.
Biffle and Sprague made heavy contact after Sprague's pass at the end, and by losing his position to Hornaday, Biffle became the key factor in a championship that was decided by a mere three points. Hornaday, who won the championship, saw nothing wrong with Biffle's maneuvers down the stretch. Sprague, suffice it to say, was not impressed. He complained bitterly after the race that Biffle had raced Hornaday with a lot less enthusiasm than he had Sprague. Biffle disagreed.
"It was a great race," he said. "We won the rookie of the year deal, and we're happy. That's all we can do. Sprague got underneath me coming off of (turn) four. He had a clean shot, and then going down the front stretch he tried to run me down in the dust, for no reason. He had the position on me. That's the way it goes."
And so the 1998 NCTS season came to a close, with Biffle making a splash in more ways than one. His qualifying prowess nearly earned him the Bud Pole Award for the season, and twice he came within one position of breaking into the win column. But he won the one that counts for rookies - the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title. Just call him the Cannonball Express.
Source: NASCAR Online