Hoping Daytona, the site of his first Cup win, will be the season turning point
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida -- You do not have to spend long with NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Greg Biffle to know he is frustrated. This is a contract year, and while Roush-Fenway has been home for the 44-year-old driver since 1998, one of the longest associations in the NASCAR garage, he isn’t happy.
Biffle won nine races in the Camping World truck series in 1999, and the championship in 2000, soundly beating teammate Kurt Busch.
Team owner Jack Roush moved Biffle to the Nationwide series in 2001, where he won five races and the rookie title. In 2002, he won the championship.
As the poster boy for NASCAR’s ladder system, Biffle moved to Sprint Cup in 2003, and promptly won his first race here at Daytona, the Pepsi 400. He won twice in 2004, a startling five times in 2005, finishing second in the standings to Tony Stewart.
Then, that career trajectory started to stall. Some of it was simply bad luck: Several times he has led the Daytona 500 up to the white flag, but he has never closed the deal.
As it stands now, Biffle has 19 Cup wins, but only five since 2009, and none this year.
And he’s getting pretty tired of it.
“It’s hard,” he said recently during a publicity stop at Daytona. “I want to win races, I feel like I can win. That’s all I’m interested in.
“I mean, what other reason is there to show up at a racetrack on a weekend? I don’t know a driver ever who says, ‘I’m going to Pocono this week, man, I hope I get 10th. That’s not what we do, that’s not what we work for. We are going there to win. Win and win only, that’s number one. Number two is finish the best we can if we can’t win. But winning is why I get up in the morning.”
And that’s why 2014 has been such a trying year. Roush-Fenway has lost the thread: Aside from Carl Edwards’ wins at Bristol and Sonoma, neither track exactly representative of the balance of the NASCAR schedule, there has not been much to celebrate among the three Roush drivers – Biffle, Edwards and Sprint Cup sophomore Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
Trevor Bayne will join the group next year, but he will likely be replacing a departing Carl Edwards, who seems all but gone. Biffle says he’d like to stay with Roush, but he also likes to win, and right now, that’s hardly a given.
The most confounding aspect is that it isn’t the Fords – it’s the Fords that non-Penske teams are driving. The Penske Fords of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are doing fine, thanks. At Kentucky last week – one of those 1.5-mile ovals of the sort that Roush cars used to rule, Keselowski qualified on the pole and led 199 of the 267 laps to win. Logano qualified second, and led 37 laps on the way to a disappointing fifth after dropping a cylinder. The only car that could pass Keselowski was Logano. It was a Penske party.
The Roush crew qualified 21st (Stenhouse), 23rd (Edwards) and 24th (Biffle). Fellow Ford drivers Aric Almirola qualified 22nd, and Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose qualified 27th.
So we had Fords qualifying first, second -- then 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 27th. See a pattern? Biffle does, and he doesn’t like it.
Clearly, he says, “Penske has found something that the other Ford teams haven’t.” And they haven’t shared what it is, nor does Biffle expect them to.
And it is something in this chassis. Though off-season changes were comparatively minor, mostly involving ride height and a few other tweaks, it made a much bigger difference than anyone expected.
“It’s all handling,” says Biffle, who arguably knows as much about race cars as any driver in Sprint Cup. “We have the same engines as the Penske cars.” Those engines come from Roush-Yates, which is pretty much Yates – and Biffle is satisfied that that all the bullets under the hood are the same caliber.
“But most oval track racing comes down to handling,” Biffle says, “because that dictates when you can put down the gas down, and how fast your car goes around the corner. Doesn’t matter how much power you have – if I’m not able to push the gas down, I’ve got zero horsepower.
“I mean, we go from zero to 900 horsepower at full throttle, and they guy whose car handles better can use that power more quickly. That’s what it boils down to,” he says, and that’s where the Penske cars are beating the other Fords. “You see a guy get a great run off a corner, it doesn’t mean he has more power, it just means he can get the gas down more quickly.”
“Obviously Penske has figured something out,” and they aren’t sharing the information. “We’re competitive teams. Childress isn’t going to share everything with Hendricks. Gibbs isn’t going to share everything with Waltrip just because they both have Toyotas. We share a little a bit – we are doing aero studies together, compare notes on restrictor plate cars, but for the most part, we don’t share.”
And where does that leave Greg Biffle? Seventeen races into the season, he has two top five finishes, five top 10s, no wins, no poles, and 13th in points. He has career earnings of over $80 million, so he isn’t in the welfare line, but he isn’t winning – and, even worse, he has seldom been in a position to win – and something has to change.
Biffle said he was hoping his contract talks would be settled by this weekend. “I’d like to stay [at Roush] if things work out that way. All a guy really wants is to be competitive. Can we get our program turned around, get back to our winning ways, and get back some of the dominance we had on the mile-and-a-half tracks? I think we can.”
Despite his championships, Biffle admits he isn’t the best points racer, and denies that that the new points format, which rewards victories, has made any real difference in his driving style. “It’s a fantasy that we don’t try to win every race. That idea just doesn’t exist, it just doesn’t make any sense. Not with me, at least.” Biffle really needs to win a race to stand a good chance of making the Chase for the Championship – there are four drivers ahead of him in points who haven’t won a race, either.
Hopefully Jack Roush and Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing, are listening, and listening hard. Or they’re going to lose a hard-driving, long-loyal member of the family.