- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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LOUDON, N.H. -- And the latest driver to be reckoned with for the NASCAR championship is ... Greg Biffle.
Beg your pardon?
C'mon. The Biff?
Hiding his hand until 12 laps remained in Sunday's Sylvania 300, the opening race of the Chase, Biffle blasted past Jimmie Johnson with ease, took the lead for keeps, and shot from ninth to third in the playoff standings.
This from a driver who'd gone 33 races without a win, dating back to Sept. 30, 2007, at Kansas Speedway.
The only two people at New Hampshire Motor Speedway who weren't surprised at the easy pass for the win were Biffle and Johnson.
"I was holding back at the end there -- for the middle part of that run," Biffle said.
But when the final caution period ended with 13 laps to go, Biffle went. Johnson sensed the onslaught.
"I felt a little vulnerable," Johnson said, "and sure enough, he got by."
Biffle's move cooled off Johnson, who had been NASCAR's hottest driver -- with two straight wins and four for the season coming into the race -- and was rapidly running down the earlier hot hands of the year, Kyle Busch (eight wins) and Carl Edwards (six).
Busch had a wretched race and was easily the biggest loser of the day. He'd entered the Chase with an 80-point lead by virtue of seeding for wins, but plummeted to eighth in the standings.
Busch started on the pole but almost immediately had suspension problems, was penalized for pitting procedures when he came in for repairs, and then was involved in a wreck. He finished 34th, 12 laps down, and bolted from the track without speaking with the media.
Edwards, Biffle's Roush Fenway teammate, finished third and moved atop the Chase standings. He and Johnson are tied in points with 5,220 each, but Edwards gets the lead on the tiebreaker of more wins this season.
But Biffle is in position to seize command of the Chase because of the tracks that lie ahead for the remaining nine races.
"Dover [next week], Homestead [the season finale Nov. 16], we've won at," he said. "Texas, Kansas [where he's also won], there's a bunch of great racetracks for us in the Chase.
"There were some that I was worried about and one was Loudon," Biffle continued. "The other two are Martinsville and Talladega, so we've gotten through one a little better than I expected.
"So I feel like we're definitely the dark horse, like a couple of people said we were."
But coming into the Chase, even with all the hoopla over the hot three -- Busch, Edwards and Johnson -- "I didn't feel like the dark horse," Biffle said. "They named me that. They named me the Biff, and they said I was the dark horse.
"I don't know what else they're going to call me."
"Winner," said his crew chief, Greg Erwin, buoyed by the win on what had been a tough track for the No. 16 Ford team.
"Our history here hasn't been real strong," Erwin said. "Quite honestly, we thought, 'Man, if we could come out of here with a top-10 finish and roll into Dover, where we were second and third and sixth in our last three trips there, we'd be able to put a solid string together and get up there in the points."
Being overlooked coming into the Chase "inspires me a little bit to want to make a statement, I guess," Biffle said.
But it didn't bother Erwin.
"Dark horse, not the favorite, it really makes no difference to me," Erwin said. "I look at it as common sense. I mean, you've got a guy out there who's won eight races, you've got a guy who's won six, and you've got a guy who's won four. Of course they're going to be the favorites. That's human nature. It's going to be that way in any sport. I certainly wouldn't take that personally."
With Edwards first and Biffle third in the standings, is Roush Fenway suddenly the team in the driver's seat for the playoffs?
"I wouldn't say we're in the driver's seat, but certainly we're competitive," team owner Jack Roush said.
A few weeks ago, Roush said he felt Edwards was ready to win a Cup championship now, though the points leader hadn't been in the past.
"Greg is obviously ready to win a championship [now]," Roush said, based on Biffle's battle seasoning in the Chase. In 2005, Biffle lost the championship by only 35 points to Tony Stewart.
"It was unfortunate to come that close," Biffle said. "Somebody told me one time that you have to lose one before you can win one, and I didn't understand that theory. ... I was hoping that wouldn't be the case in 2005 when we came so close and finished second, but I guess I got that part out of the way."
How confident is he now?
"I don't want to brag," he said of the hand-showing move that launched him to the win and major status in the Chase, "but it was a textbook pass."
The Biff. Seriously.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.