- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Greg Biffle's ready to go. Sure he enjoyed time off in the mountains, or time spent playing with his collection of personal cars, but that doesn't mean he wasn't ready for NASCAR's season to kick back into gear.
"Unfortunately we have that bad molecule in our blood that's called racing and we love to do it all the time," said Biffle, "but at the same time we enjoy the time off and time away from the race track -- the weekends to do nothing. We miss that when we get back to racing, but this is what we love to do. This is what we live for."
And this year, Biffle would appear to have more than his fair share to be excited about. After finishing just 35 points behind champion Tony Stewart in last season's Chase for the Nextel Cup, Biffle is one of a handful of drivers that includes Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Stewart, being talked about for the crown.
Some drivers say they give such talk no mind, but Biffle isn't one of them. He welcomes it.
"It feels good. In Las Vegas [during testing], did a quick media thing at lunch and they said somebody had picked Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and me to be the three favorites. Now I don't know if that's just in Las Vegas or what, but somebody brought that to my attention," Biffle said. "I had not heard that, but that's neat to be one that people are looking at to win races or run [well] and make the Chase. I'm real excited about that."
Not to mention confident that he can become the first driver to record what would be a unique NASCAR hat trick. Biffle won the Craftsman Truck Series crown in 2000 and the Busch Series title in '02.
Edwards, a Roush Racing teammate, certainly thinks Biffle is amongst the drivers in for a big year.
"I think that Greg Biffle is gonna be really fast. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart [are also favorites]," Edwards said. "Other than myself, and I feel like we're gonna be pretty good, but I think those guys are gonna be really good. There's no reason any of them couldn't win the championship."
It's taken a bit longer for Biffle to scale that level of competitiveness in Cup, but he certainly reached it last year. Biffle won five of the season's first 15 races before cooling off a bit.
Still, he won the finale at Homestead and might have been the driver to beat at Texas in November if not for a loose lug nut that ruined his day.
"It's a hard thing not to be overconfident because they say, 'Well, you had such a great year last year what do you expect this year?' And, gosh, if I did the same thing I did last year I'd be ecstatic," Biffle said. "Certainly, I'd like to win the championship, but, boy, if I had to replay last year I don't know that I'd do a thing different. Six wins was definitely huge for us and finishing second in points my third year in the series and coming that close was neat.
"I'd like that same opportunity this year. Obviously, you've got to make the Chase first, so first things first -- get in the Chase. We'd like to win some races along the way if we can, but I've been saying it all along since last year. I want to skip the first 26 races and I want to go right to the last 10 again."
Biffle, though, doesn't have the luxury of making that happen, so he'll set his sights on the first 26 races, beginning with Daytona, where he starts 16th on the grid. Sure it might not be as much fun since he could gain and lose momentum a number of times between now and September, but the NFL's not going to simply toss Seattle back into the Super Bowl because they wish it would be so.
Then again, that likely would make Biffle, a Washington-state native, happy as well.
And while recent history shows the Super Bowl runnerup has a hard time being competitive the following season, Biffle thinks it would take a major collapse for his Roush Racing team not to be in the top 10 when the Chase is set.
"It can happen, but we'd probably have to have catastrophic-type problems to not make it there because I feel like we're pretty decent," Biffle said. "We tested well in Las Vegas. We finished up the season pretty good. We ran well at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. We ran strong at all those places, so for me to think that we're not gonna run well in those first 26 would be something that I'm not seeing right now."
While winning at Daytona is, in some respects, a testament to luck due to the nature of restrictor-plate racing, Biffle won at California last year in the season's second race.
He's not about to predict another victory there just yet, but he won't bet against himself all that often, either.
"If I had to guess, I think we've got a great opportunity to win at California. [But] without testing there it would be hard for me to say [for sure] right now," he said. "Last year we tested there and were very fast. This year we didn't test there [due to NASCAR's new mandated test sessions at certain tracks], so just being optimistic we should be pretty good at California.
"Vegas, I'm so-so at. I'm a top-10 car at Vegas. I could win at Vegas, but I don't think my chances are as good there as they are at California if I was a betting man. Atlanta, I think we stand a good chance at Atlanta and we stand a good chance at Bristol. We've been close many times at Bristol. We run well there, so those are my predictions. The places that we run really good at I'm confident about going to. I kind of like my chances at California, Atlanta and Bristol. Vegas, I think we'll run well. Anything can happen."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com .
1dLaurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders