CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Greg Biffle fell two laps down at Martinsville, clawed his way to a 13th-place finish, then headed to the Bahamas as NASCAR’s points leader.
“It feels good to go on vacation being the point leader,” Biffle said after the April 1 race in Virginia.
Biffle better have enjoyed his time away from the track, because it’s game-on from here. NASCAR resumes racing this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, the first in a stretch of 14 consecutive races that will shape most of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
Brad Keselowski proved last year a driver can overcome a slow start and still be a championship contender. He was a season-low 28th in the standings nine races into the season, turned things around at the start of the summer and used three wins to claim one of the two wild card spots in the 12-driver Chase field.
That leaves hope for Kasey Kahne, who has had a horrendous start to his Hendrick Motorsports tenure.
Despite two poles and strong cars, Kahne has been plagued with problems and has four finishes of 29th or worse. His best showing so far this season was 14th at California, and an engine failure at Martinsville has him sitting 31st in the standings.
He’s been furious at times and frustrated with his position but isn’t giving up hope he can turn things around with strong Chevrolets that are struggling to make it to the finish.
“I am upset that we haven’t run great this year, but we are great on Friday and Saturday,” Kahne said. “We have the speed, so when it’s our time we will be ready to take advantage of it.”
He’ll have to get moving pretty soon, though, because there are some big names sitting outside the top 10 in points right now.
Carl Edwards, who lost the championship to Tony Stewart last season on a tie-breaker, is currently 11th, and Keselowski, despite a win at Bristol, is 12th.
Kyle Busch is stuck back in 16th and uncharacteristically has only challenged for one victory so far this season. He settled for second to Stewart at California, where he led 80 laps in the rain-shortened race, but has only one other top-10 finish this season.
Busch has only missed the Chase twice in his career — his 2005 rookie season, and in 2009, when he won four races but fell just short of claiming the final spot in the field.
Stuck in 21st is four-time champion Jeff Gordon, outside the top 10 in points six races into the season for only the third time in his career. He rallied to make the Chase in 2004 and 2011 but has a lot of ground to make up this season.
Although Gordon has led at least one lap in every race — and was out front for 328 laps at Martinsville — he’s got just one top-10 finish. Still, he isn’t all that worried.
“I like the Chase format, because we are still in it,” he said. “We just have to focus on winning races right now. We can’t focus on trying to be in the top 10 in points. … There’s not an urgency, but we’re starting to feel a bit more pressure to start putting those good finishes together that I know we are capable of doing, which is the good thing,”
So the attention, for now, shifts toward the back of the field to see who can salvage their season.
It takes the heat off Biffle, who’s leading the points standings for just the second time in his career. Biffle’sonly other time out front was in 2005, when he won six races but spent just one week atop the points and finished second in the final standings.
Now, behind four top-10 finishes in the first six races, Biffle currently holds a six-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr. It shows he’s had a strong start to the season but means very little else at this stage of the game.
Kyle Busch spent 21 weeks atop the points standings in 2008, only to stumble at the start of the Chase and finish 10th in the championship race. Gordon led for nine weeks early in the 2009 season, then Stewart took over the top spot for 13 straight weeks leading into the Chase. Neither challenged for the title.
Same thing happened to Kevin Harvick in 2010, and Edwards, despite leading 16 of 26 regular season weeks last year, also failed to win the title.
So Biffle heads into Saturday night’s race at Texas with a clear understanding of what’s ahead for his Roush Fenway Racing team.
“I know that we’re probably not going to lead the points the whole way,” he said. “So I’m happy and proud of our team fighting to stay in the points lead (and) running as good as we can every week. But the reality is I know that we may (lose the points lead). If and when that happens, certainly I’m not going to let that take the wind out of our sails.”
What he needs, though, is a victory.
Biffle hasn’t won a race since Kansas in 2010 and takes a 49-race winless streak into Texas. But he’s confident he’s getting close behind new crew chief Matt Puccia, who has already this season matched the three top-five finishes Biffle scored last season.
“You’re never happy unless you win or you’re winning. I don’t mean happy as you’re not satisfied, but you’re going to continue to work hard, or harder, be aggressive, until you win,” Biffle said. “When I say we’re looking for a good, solid, top-five run, we want to be in the top five, and the reason why I use that analogy is because a winner usually never comes from out of the top five.
“If you’re not running in that top five, you don’t stand a snowball’s chance of winning that race. Are we happy with finishing third or whatever? Yeah, we’re happy because we went there, we gave it a hundred percent, and that’s the result we ended up with. But we’re going to continue ’til we reach that Victory Circle.”