Since winning Michigan six weeks ago, Greg Biffle has struggled (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
We've got a little mystery here.
And if it doesn't get solved, or resolved, quickly, it could get much bigger.
The issue is simple really: Greg Biffle is just spinning his wheels, literally.
Plenty of horsepower, not enough grip.
Time might not be running out quite yet, but time is not on Biffle's side here. Not when you're up against five-time champ Jimmie Johnson and his army.
Biffle, jumping down out of Matt Puccia's war room inside one of Jack Roush's four Ford haulers down in the first turn garage hole here, after yet another debriefing, or briefing, or whatever, concedes as much.
Here's the setting: Biffle and teammate Matt Kenseth have shared the top spot in the Sprint Cup standings a whopping 21 weeks over the 28 run. Yet they both come in here reeling.
Biffle's pain is clear.
Not only is arch-rival Jimmie Johnson back atop the standings -- for only the second time this season -- but Johnson is on a roll. He's finished second in each of the opening races of the playoffs, and over the last nine tour events, he's finished first, second or third in five of them. (There was that blown engine in the final miles while leading at Michigan, and Johnson just crashed himself out of the Labor Day weekend Atlanta 500.)
And Johnson, who won here in June, is favored to finish at least top-three in Sunday's Dover 400.
So heading into Round Three of the 10-race chase, Rick Hendrick's Chevy brigade, holding four of the top seven spots.
Biffle, meanwhile, is mired ninth, and Kenseth 11th. The two men who opened the season with such a roar at Daytona now appear to be fading fast in crunch time.
Denny Hamlin: on the Dover pole, and looking for his fourth Sprint Cup tour win in his last six starts. But he's never won here, and rarely runs well here. If he can turn that around, then who gets the praise: crew chief Darian Grubb, or Hamlin's new Zen master? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Remember Biffle's victory proclamation at Michigan: "I know a lot of people don't expect us to win the championship, don't expect us to compete for the title. But I don't care what they say or who they want to talk about, we will be a factor when it comes down to Homestead, I promise you that."
Well, then, it's time to get cracking on turning this thing back around.
Denny Hamlin led a Toyota qualifying parade Saturday afternoon at Dover International Speedway, trying to wrestle with his demons at a track he's called his Achilles heel. Four of the five fastest qualifiers on the overcast day at this high-banked one-mile are in Toyotas, upsetting for the day at least Chevy men Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson.
The biggest edge for Hamlin (159.299 mph) is the best spot on this tight and tough pit road.
For Biffle, starting sixth, Sunday's 400 should start out on a better note than his first two playoff races, because he'll be in front of all his Chevy rivals.
Jimmie Johnson (L) and Greg Biffle: top dog in the Chevy camp, and top dog in the Ford camp. And it's looking like time for Ford to crank it up a notch. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The Chicago stop:
Biffle and Kenseth went into the Joliet, Ill., race with season's stats second only to Johnson. And tracks like the 1-1/2-mile Chicagoland layout have traditionally been strong points for Roush men. Biffle won Texas, finished third at Las Vegas, qualified on the front row at Atlanta, finished fifth at Kansas, fourth at Charlotte.
Puccia had Biffle in his Michigan winner (and the car Biffle ran third with at the Indy Brickyard) for Chicago.
But things just didn't go well. Kenseth had a shock fall off his car, rather surprising, to say the least, and finished 18th; he complained about quality control issues. Biffle had handling problems and finished a weak 13th.
Then at New Hampshire, neither man was ever in the game. Ford's most recent win there was by Biffle in 2008...
So coming here into Round Three, many in the sport are all but ready to give the title to Johnson.
For Biffle, them's fightin' words.
"I ain't giving up nothing to Jimmie Johnson," Biffle says.
"He's running good; they're going to be tough.
"But it's way too early to tell."
Maybe so, maybe not.
Running with Johnson and the Hendrick guys is hard enough, but having to play catch-up is even harder.
Greg Biffle, atop the NASCAR standings for half the season, but suddenly struggling. What's wrong? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Biffle's recent runs since winning Michigan (he was running second there when Johnson's engine soured) have been only mediocre:
A 19th at Bristol....a 15th at Atlanta...a ninth at Richmond...a 13th at Chicago...and an 18th at Loudon, N.H. That's averaging only a 15th place finish the last five weeks.
Are the Ford guys fading, or just stumbling?
Did too many guys get sidetracked trying to chase that trick rear end stuff Johnson and the Hendrick guys were using all summer?
"I am just so disappointed in what we've done the last four weeks," Biffle says plaintively. "I want to start by say it's not for lack of effort...because everybody has been working their butts off.
"We're just missing it somewhere."
Sidetracked by the Johnson chassis controversy?
In this sport if a team goes down the wrong road for a couple of weeks, backing up to find the right road again is just a lot of lost time.
And turning things around once the playoffs begin, well, in the eight years of the chase, that's been all but impossible.
Even in the days when the NASCAR champion was determined over the full season, not just the last 10 weeks, it was hard for anyone to play catch-up down the stretch. Alan Kulwicki's 1992 rally is the benchmark -- he came out of this Dover race in terrible shape, a whopping 278 points down to the powerful Junior Johnson-Bill Elliott-Tim Brewer team, after crashing three cars here. Yet Kulwicki and crew chief Paul Andrews managed somehow to pull off a miraculous finish and win the title in the final miles of the final race.
A lot of stuff in these stockers. Where's the magic switch for Greg Biffle? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"That could be some of it," Biffle says of the Johnson rear-end engineering distraction.
"But we really didn't get sidetracked, because when they (NASCAR) came out with that rule (banning the trick, effective Sept. 16th), it really didn't affect us much, compared to where we were. So we didn't have a bunch of adjusting to do.
"What got us is that we came up on a group of race tracks -- that were slick, with not a lot of grip...and that was a weakness in our program that was 'mold' under-the-carpet, that we didn't see.
"We ran Pocono, Indy, Michigan, and stomping their butts, because those tracks had pretty good grip. (Pocono and Michigan had just been repaved.)
"Then we come to tracks like Bristol, that has become slicker and slicker and slicker, and we were like 'Man, we can't get hold of the track.'
"Then we went to Atlanta, where we've usually been okay, decent, if not our strongest track, and we were awful, awful.
"Then we went to Richmond, which has been a mediocre track for us, and we ran (solid) ninth, and we could have run fifth if we'd tried some pit strategies.
"Now we're licking our chops, and going to Chicago. But the tire combination and track....it just ended up slick, and we couldn't get hold of the track, and we were off on our rear springs and sway bars and front bars....
"We were off our game. And we tried and tried and tried....just ran out of practice time, so we said 'Let's just go back to what we had last year,' but that didn't work either.
"So we were scratching our heads leaving Chicago for Loudon...
"And we'd run third at Loudon last fall, this time we took our (good) Richmond car, and, shoot, we were so off we were just standing around there dumbfounded: 'What do we do?'
"After Chicago I said 'I'm worried about Dover.' Now we've run good at times at Dover, but the last three or four times we haven't been that good. It's been slick: 'loose in,' and can't get hold of it.
"So we've been studying this track, trying to figure out what's different now."
Yes, sometimes Jimmie Johnson appears to be in a world of his own. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
There is of course more to this whole story:
-- Kenseth is in the final weeks of his 14-year run with Ford and Roush, and heading over to Joe Gibbs' Toyota camp at the end of the season. How much that saps out of the Kenseth-Jimmy Fennig team is uncertain, but it doesn't look like a positive.
-- Carl Edwards, after posting the best finishing average overall in 2011, didn't even make the playoffs this fall, and he seems more than a bit lost. Edwards, now with new crew chief Chad Norris, is still winless since March 2011, and he hasn't had a decent run in a long, long time. Only twice this year has Edwards led more than one lap in a race.
-- And now newcomer Ricky Stenhouse has just been added to the Cup lineup. Stenhouse, a promising hard-charger, is to make his second Cup start of the year here; he finished 20th in the season-opener. How much of a distraction that may be here isn't clear.
What all that appears to mean is that Biffle and Puccia look pretty much on their own right now, with not much support from teammates, who are all with their own agendas and issues.
And the Hendrick camp, on the other side, has its five drivers -- Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, and even Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- all in high gear. In fact a top-five sweep here is not out of the question, as strong and consistent as all five have been running.
Matt Kenseth: A Ford man now, heading over to the Toyota camp. Where does he fit into the championship equation? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Biffle understands the deal.
"We're just up here worrying about our team right now, super-focused," he says.
"And we're trying to help Ricky; he is copying everything we're doing.
"Carl is trying to help us a little bit on what we're doing wrong...because he is in the same boat we are. So we've been sitting down saying 'Hey, let's work together on this. You guys do this, and we'll try this....' And Ricky just has a bow-line on us, following...."
Whatever the problem, Biffle insists it's not under the hood. "You've got to be able to put the gas down.
"At Loudon and Chicago, I'll be honest with you, I couldn't step on the gas pedal. It was either the front-end or the back-end or both, but I just couldn't step on the gas pedal."
Ricky Stenhouse, turning 25 in a few days. The future for Ford's Jack Roush? Maybe. But what can he bring to this fall's championship playoffs to help teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The frustrations of all this are telling: "It's really disappointing to run like we have all season and then come for the first two chase races and run close to two of the worst races we've had all year," Biffle frets.
Especially after Biffle's strong run at Michigan.
"I know, I know," Biffle says, shaking his head.
"It's a huge disappointment. But we're not giving up; we're still working on it, uncovering rocks....
"And what Jimmie and Denny and all those guys are doing, it's not even on our radar. Not even on our radar -- because we're not even in that ballpark right now.
"If we were parked up closer to Denny and those guys (NASCAR garage hauler spaces are set by the point standings), we might be worried about it....but right now we're like 'Hey, we've got to get our game on here.'
"Everybody is giving 110 percent...but we're just coming up short.
"Fortunately -- knock on wood -- we're starting to feel like we're getting back on our game a little here."
The problem of course is more for Biffle than just getting back on his game. He's got to start beating Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin and those guys. He's got to start hammering, and hammering hard.
Biffle's only 33 points down -- about the difference between winning a race and finishing 30th. But if Johnson keeps knocking out 2.0 finishes or top-three runs, well, you do the math....
Maybe green will be Greg Biffle's lucky charm this weekend (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)