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The Biff is hot and ready, and this weekend he could make it two in a row

  Greg Biffle: is this his championship season? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   KANSAS CITY, Kansas
   If President Obama is up for it, and his minders don't mind, Greg Biffle says he'd be willing to give him a couple of hot laps at Bristol, Texas, Charlotte or Atlanta.
   The President invited last season's 12 championship contenders up for a visit this week. And Biffle is currently atop the Sprint Cup standings, and looking at what would be his first Cup championship, if he can hold it together another seven months.

   If The Biff could take Obama around any NASCAR track at speed, what tracks would he pick?
   "A couple tracks come to mind," Biffle says.
   "One would be Bristol, because it's bad-ass fast…and people probably don't understand what it's like being inside that car.
   "Or at a place like Texas, Charlotte, Atlanta: one of our 205-mph getting into the corner race tracks that has a lot of grip on a new set of tires.  That will wake you up on what it's like to sit inside there for 500 miles."
    G-forces in a stock car are pretty cool, and the 15-second laps at Bristol are unique in that a driver's body goes from vertical-normal to 30 degrees sideways every five seconds or so.
   Is it going to snow here?  
   Man, it was a chilly Friday morning here at Kansas Speedway.
   Wonder if it's any hotter over at the Hollywood Casino, by the second turn?
   Feels like Rockingham weather…without the smudge pots.
   It was a balmy 77 degrees Thursday afternoon, but after the front moved through overnight – fortunately without any violent weather – it's turned chilly.
   And this track, a flat 1-1/2-mile, is notoriously fickle with the weather. It's only 15 degrees in the corners, and that's not much different than California's Auto Club Speedway at 14 degrees.
   Hence teams are very interested in how this track will change with the upcoming redesign and repaving, set to start at 4:15 pm CT Sunday, just moments after the finish of the Kansas STP 400. To make it a celebration, an M1A1 Abrams tank and an Armored Combat Earthmover will lead the sledgehammer brigade.
   The new layout will be a big unknown in this fall's NASCAR championship playoffs Oct. 21, as the sixth race of the 10-race chase.
   And drivers might even be lining up and offering their services for the Goodyear tire tests just ahead of that event.
   The new layout will feature variable banking, curved up in the corners from 17 degrees up to 20 degrees, similar to the variable banking at Homestead-Miami Speedway (18 up to 20 degrees).
   One big question: will this fall's 400 here, on the new asphalt, still wind up with a gas mileage finish? Three of the last four Sprint Cup events here have featured gas-mileage battles to the line, with drivers running out before making it.
   With gas mileage probably key, not sure how much to put into Friday's practice speeds. Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Martin Truex Jr. and Biffle were the fastest, and one of those will probably win the pole in Saturday morning quals (11:10 a.m. CT/ 12:10 p.m. ET).
   Who's the best driver/team at playing the gas mileage game? Truex says NASCAR's new electronic fuel injection systems have leveled the playing field in that department. "Last year we were among the worst at fuel mileage, but this year everyone is just about the same," Truex says.
   Another related issue: drivers so far this season are crashing far less than last spring. In early 2011 there were 45 cautions for wrecks; so far this year only 25 such cautions. The number of debris cautions has remained fairly constant, 15 last year, 16 this year.
   Why? Are drivers simply driving smarter this season? Denny Hamlin says it's so hard to pass now that that is probably one reason for fewer cautions. Why so hard to pass? Maybe speeds are too high.  

   Biffle likes the prospect of variable banking here, and points to that design at the tour's season finale track: "Homestead is a really fun race track -- where you can run the bottom, the middle, the top.
   "Progressive banking shines on that track more than any other track, it really does."
   So while many teams use the first race of the season at the tour's 'chase' tracks, like this one, Sunday's 400 notes will be thrown away.    
   "This is just for fun," Biffle says. "This is just for the trophy."

      Qualifying here is Saturday morning (11:10 a.m. CT/12:10 p.m. ET), with no more Cup runs till the race itself Sunday.
     And weather here – this race is set a week earlier than usual, to allow a bigger window for the repaving – can have a major effect on the asphalt.
     "The track has a tremendous amount of grip," Biffle says of Friday runs.
    "So you've got the worst scenario (in terms of weather) --  When we first show up on Friday the track doesn't have a lot of rubber down, so it tends to be the fastest. Compound that with cool temperatures (mid-50s Friday), and this being the coldest day of the weekend, that really compounds the grip. 
    "Then Sunday it will be the complete opposite – It will be slick and hot, and not a lot of grip."
    What the surface will be like as new asphalt is unclear.
    "But the track I heard is coming up in some spots. And we have to keep the track in good condition, where it's not coming apart during a race," Biffle says.
    New asphalt of course will make this a wild card in the chase.
    Right now, Biffle says, "the track has a lot of character. 
    "It gets slick…it gets slow…and it takes a lot of strategy.
    "The racing could be improved by (using) the left-side tire that we used at California.  Goodyear knows that.  I did all I could do.  I was the president and gave the speech several times to get a different left-side tire here because it was so much better at California -- and it was a lot better across the seams, and it was easier to drive because it gave the car more grip and speed.
    "But they didn't want to change it because there's only one race left.  I understand."
    Now that he's been on top of the standings for a month, is Biffle feeling like the top dog at Jack Roush's operation?
   "No," he says, surprisingly perhaps.
   "I still think Carl Edwards is the number one team at Roush. 
    "I'm the underdog."
    Uh, can you expand on that?
    Uh, no.
    Perhaps all the hoopla made over Edwards last summer when he came close to leaving still hasn't quite settled. Though no one is saying anything on the record, there has been speculation about sizeable salary differences among drivers in the Roush camp, with Ford executives upping the bidding considerably to keep Edwards in the fold.
    If so, that could be incentive for Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia to step up their game. The Texas 500 was their first win together, but as hot as Biffle has been this year it probably won't be their last.
   In fact Biffle could easily win here Sunday….depending of course on fuel mileage.
   Is this 'the season' for Biffle? He's won Nationwide (Busch) and Truck championships, and came within a scant 35 points of winning the 2005 title. This is looking like his best shot in years.
   And Biffle certainly exudes confidence.
   "I wasn't doubtful two or three races into the season when we got the point lead," Biffle says. "But I was like 'Okay, now we've got to keep it…and we've got to perform at this level everywhere we go, at all race tracks.'
    "We ran good at Phoenix.  We ran good at Las Vegas.  We actually ran very well by my standards at Bristol and Martinsville, but we got 13th-place finishes at both of those tracks, with a little bit of an excuse. 
    "At Bristol we broke a bump-stop on the right-front shock with 17 laps to go.  We were going to be well in the top-five for sure.  I don't know if we were going to compete for the win, but we were the first car on (fresh) tires. So our result doesn't really reflect. 
    "Even though 13th is not a bad finish, our result doesn't reflect how good we were at Bristol.
    "And the same at Martinsville.  We were in position to be the 'lucky dog' twice to get back on the lead lap, and would have finished inside the top-10….which would really be a win for me and our team (which typically doesn't run that well at Clay Campbell's flat half-mile).
    "Coming down to the last 10 races of the season, Martinsville is the one track we say 'We just need to finish in the top 10.' And every time I've run there I've gotten better."
   Biffle is better known as a big-track driver, and the 1-1/2-mile tracks are some of his strongest.
    "We've run competitively at every venue: superspeedway and intermediate tracks. And at short tracks we've been pretty respectable.
    "So at this point I feel good."


  The looming repaving project here at Kansas Speedway and the Bristol redesign coming too has everyone in the NASCAR garage weighing in.
   Dale Earnhardt Jr. says variable banking, used at Bristol and Homestead most notably, and planned for here, "is a great idea when you're using asphalt. 
    "When you're using concrete….concrete has a lot of limitations for our cars. None of them truly became multi-groove tracks.  Dover is the closest we have to a multi-groove track; but to be honest with you, the majority of the racing is done on the bottom of that track as well. 
    "In a perfect world, in my opinion, if I owned the (Bristol) track and had all the money Bruton (Smith) has, or the technology we have today, I would pave the track with the configuration that they currently have, with progressive banking with asphalt.
    "But it's not my decision.
     "And I think what they're doing is going to be fun, and I like they're making a change. 
     "Even though when you pave a track, it typically doesn't put on the best races (until) after a few years of weather and wear on the surface; then the track really comes into its own again. 
     "As much as we'd like to have a lot of the tracks stay with the older asphalt, it's just some of them are deteriorating so bad that it's just not an option. 
     "Progressive banking has done wonders at a lot of tracks and been a real plus. It's just the combination of progressive banking and the limitations of that concrete is what's challenging to Bristol."

   Jimmie Johnson says NASCAR and the repaving engineers have been holding seminars with drivers to get their input.
   "I haven't heard or spoken to anyone regarding Bristol, but at a lot of other tracks NASCAR has held a meeting in the truck on a race weekend, and brought in the paving crew and engineers designing it," Johnson said.
    "I've sat in on a lot of those meetings, and it felt like my voice has been heard.
    "But the one that caught me off-guard -- and I think a lot of drivers off-guard -- was the repave at Phoenix. The conversations that took place, and the understanding from the drivers leaving those meetings…when we came back (to see the new track) it was a far different track than what we had talked about.
    "I guess that's their prerogative. They're spending the money; they can do what they want.
     "Michigan (also just repaved), I'm eager to get back to. I was involved with different aspects in that -- with safety in a couple of areas with some walls. I've spoken to (NASCAR's) Robin Pemberton and know they have addressed those areas.
     "So we are in the loop.
    "It shifts around. Some weeks some tracks may ask me; others, it might be Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon.
    "NASCAR puts that meeting together, and they work hard to have our voice heard."


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