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Darlington, and time for Ford teams to mount up and charge. Will Biffle lead the way?

  Greg Biffle: facing two very important races, at two of his best tracks, Darlington and Dover (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   For this place, this looks like a nice quinella for Saturday night's Southern 500: Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.
   Gordon, way overdue.
   Busch, suddenly hot again.
   But the man to really keep an eye on could be Greg Biffle, one of the best at this tight, very fast track, where that famed Darlington Stripe is now the Darlington Crunch.
   Biffle has been so up and down lately, it's, well, baffling: He nearly wins Daytona, runs strong in the opening two months of the season, then hits a pothole at Phoenix. He bounces back at Texas, then, well, what is going on? That 22nd at Richmond was almost a no-show performance for a guy who has a good shot at this year's Sprint Cup championship.
   "Darlington has been our best race track historically, and we have Dover coming up (next week), and I have wins at both of tracks...so that is optimistic," Biffle says.
   "These next two races are very important for us. We have chances to win both.
   "We are overdue for sure."
    No kidding. Biffle's last tour win was at Dover....in the fall of 2008. That's a long dry spell.
   But then Kevin Harvick just snapped a three-year winless streak, and Busch at Richmond finally got his first win since last summer...and Gordon's long dry spell is well known.
    Maybe things are turning for a lot of these guys, Biffle too.

   Here's a look at the top 10 drivers so far this season based on average finishes:

   1. Kevin Harvick                9.0
   2. Jimmie Johnson            10.5
   3. Matt Kenseth                11.2
   4. Greg Biffle                    11.6
   5. Kyle Busch                   12.0
   6. Jeff Gordon                  14.1
   7. Carl Edwards               14.3
   8. Jeff Burton                   14.8
   9. Mark Martin                14.9
   10. Denny Hamlin
        Dale Earnhardt Jr.       15.2


  Crew chief Greg Erwin: fired up, and could be in victory lane Saturday night with driver Greg Biffle (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "Richmond stings a little bit still," Biffle concedes. "But we learned something, and we are going to have to work on it."
    Certainly, since the when the tour returns in September it will be the cutoff race for the playoffs.
    Darlington and Dover back-to-back is made for Biffle. "What is really neat (about Darlington)," Biffle says, "is that I almost have five wins in a row.
    "Every race has been 'almost,' 'right there.'
     "It is a tough race track; it is really difficult. That is what I enjoy most about that track, though -- It is extremely challenging."
    Strategy at Darlington has changed dramatically since the repave two years ago. Once the track was so abrasive that tires worn out quickly, and the speed difference between men on new tires and men on old tires was considerable. Now, though, tires don't drop off much at all. What that means for tactics isn't all that clear. But the bottom line here is the same as always: race the track, not your rivals, and don't mess up on pit road (a rather bizarre layout, and tight).
    "Don't worry about all the stuff around you, all the hoopla," Biffle says. "Pay attention to the track – don't overdrive the car, don't ask for more than the car is willing to give.
    "Stay cool and calm, and just focus on the track."
    Yeah, right. For anyone who has watched a race at Darlington, cool and calm aren't words that quickly spring to mind.
    But this track is certainly not a place to try to make a point, rather just a place to survive till the final round of stops.
   And try to come into town without a lot of distractions (difficult perhaps for some drivers and teams struggling to land new sponsors): "If you come in  thinking about other things, you are going to be in trouble in a hurry," Biffle says.
    Darlington, particularly under the lights, is a delight to watch, though scary to race: "We are running 180 mph, six to 12 inches from the wall," Biffle explains. "If you are not up there, you are not going fast.
    "And inevitably the car will slide, or you will get a little loose...and there is no room for error."
    Passing? There are some tricks; but as narrow as the track is, particularly at these new higher speeds, it isn't easy.
   "You have to be really slow entering the corner, and make a run on him around the corner, and coming off you have to be able to cut to the bottom and get beside him," Biffle says.


   Ford's new FR9 engine....such a mystery (Photo: Autostock)

   Another story line to watch this weekend is under the hood of AJ Allmendinger's car – he'll be running Ford's new – and long-awaited – FR9 engine.
   The Ford engine situation has been debated in the NASCAR garage by rivals, and by some Ford drivers, for more than a year now, since the new, completely redesigned engine was debuted – on a static stand – in January 2009. It's been run a few times, by Bill Elliott and the Woods, and by all Ford teams at Talladega two weeks ago in that restrictor plate race.
   But the unrestricted version – which seems to have enough new bells and whistles to make a big change – hasn't been seen much.
   Partly that simply economics: the new engine has all new parts, not just a few. The old engine is doing pretty well still, and there is considerable inventory there....with no big market for those old Ford engines.
   In fact all Nationwide team owners are trying to figure out what to do with those expensive Daytona-Talladega Nationwide cars that are now obsolete, with the coming in July of the new Nationwide car-of-tomorrow. There is hope that ARCA teams will be interested in some of those old Nationwide cars....but at what price point?
   So what to expect from AJ?
   Well, he's been on the tour since 2007, transplanted from the Indy-car world, and for all his sparkling personality and witty repartee and driving potential, the Californian hasn't lived up to expectations.


   Kyle Busch speaks...but is Jeff Gordon listening? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    "The transition from an Indy-car to a stock car is tough," Allmendinger says. "I laughed when they told me Pocono is just like a road course and I should be good there -- then I get out there and it is just three messed-up left-handers; it isn't anything like a road course.
    "Darlington is the same. It is the funkiest looking oval you have ever seen.
    "It is an awesome place, though. The tradition is really cool, and I have gotten better each year."
    This season he's off to a decent start. That pole at Phoenix looked like a milestone, his first. And since that point he's been about a top-15 runner.
   However with all the turmoil surrounding team owners George Gillett and Richard Petty – which may have been the key to teammate Kasey Kahne's decision to split at the end of the season – Allmendinger may feel under the gun to make something good happy quickly.
    And he is driving legendary number 43.

   AJ Allmendinger, with wife Lynne, at Richmond (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    "I've really liked the last few weeks," Allmendinger says. "We have had good overall weekends, from the time we start practicing on Friday through the end of the race.
    "I know a lot of people say we haven't had the finishes...and that's true. We've been inside the top-10. Phoenix we qualified on the pole; and Talladega we led some laps. At Texas we were really fast....but we didn't have any luck.
   "The team has gotten a lot stronger each week, and our car is getting better. We just need to have a little better finish."
   Can he make the championship playoffs? Well, he'd have to make up almost 200 points....
   And he's not alone in starting to look at that part of the game. The two weeks at Charlotte, with the All-star race and the 600, are typically a key marking point for the season.
    Allmendinger says if he can get through Charlotte within 125 points of the 12th-place chase cut, "you are on the cusp of being a chase team."
    And if not, then it's time to look for Plan B.

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   Jeff Gordon (24) and Kyle Busch (18) went at it hard Saturday at Richmond...and they could well have a rematch at Darlington (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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