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Biffle delivering on all his promise

5/11/2005

Jack Roush has an undeniable eye for talent.

Nobody needs to talk Mark Martin up and two of Roush's younger gents, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, are Nextel Cup champions. Even Jeff Burton, who has fallen on hard times of late, contended for a couple titles when he drove for Roush and might be back in contention soon with his new Richard Childress Racing team.

So considering that Greg Biffle was hand-picked by Roush, it was no surprise when the hype surrounding Biffle his rookie year was feverish.

And it wasn't just that he was a Roush racer. The pressure came also from the fact that NASCAR had seen a remarkable run of rookie debuts. Kevin Harvick had just posted a top 10 rookie points finish while taking over for Dale Earnhardt and simultaneously winning the Busch Grand National Championship. And Jimmie Johnson followed that act up with a top-five rookie points finish.

Enter Biffle -- a former Craftsman Truck and Busch Series Champion and favorite to win the 2003 Cup rookie of the year award.

"I remember feeling a lot of pressure coming in," Biffle said. "It wasn't all from the outside, either. You start to listen [to the prognosticators] and you start to expect a lot, too."

Roush knew things were getting out of control and that expectations were unnecessarily high for his rookie two seasons ago, but there was nothing that could be done.

"I think we were starting to get ahead of ourselves in terms of the expectations we were putting on the rookies," Roush said.

It wasn't until Biffle's 2003 rookie campaign was finished, though, that Roush's comments found much support. Biffle finished 20th that year, alarmingly low in the "Young Guns Era." He lost the rookie of the year honor to Jamie McMurray.

But it was only a matter of time.

With Roush resources and Doug Richert as crew chief, Biffle and Co. figured out how to race the new Ford Taurus and work together cohesively as a team about midway through Biffle's sophomore campaign last year. By the end of the 2004 season, the 17th-place points finish did not do justice to how well the No. 16 team was running.

Flash forward to this season.

Three victories and three other top 10 finishes, in just 10 races, sounds just about right. In 2005, Biffle has competed at the level everyone had expected of the decorated driver back in his rookie campaign. Following his most recent victory, courtesy of a late-race pass at Darlington Raceway, Biffle is ranked third in the standings.

"I think we're going to win a couple more this season," he said, "and we're going to be tough when it comes down to the championship hunt."

Biffle is at last the star Roush thought he would become so many years ago.

"This isn't something that's happened overnight," Biffle said. "We've been working on this program -- really, really hard -- for a year and a half. We've worked really hard in the wind tunnel. Our engines are way better. Our team has gotten better. Our pit stops are better. Our race savvy is better. I've learned a little bit about the race cars along the way. There are a lot of things that have turned around."

Biffle likes to say that if last year was just 10 races longer, his team would be about two or three races heavier in the wins column. As it was, the pieces that finally fell into place midway through last year started to shine by the end of the season when Biffle won the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

It was a quiet victory, though; one that didn't gain him much fanfare coming into this year. Biffle didn't make many experts' preseason top 10, and his 25th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 didn't shock many.

But it did surprise the 16 team, which felt it had only grown stronger over the winter and expected much more.

"We had to learn about the car at the same time we were learning how to work together," Roush said, speaking for Biffle and Richert. "It all came together. When things don't go well a lot of times you cast around and make speculation on what's wrong and that can be a real distraction. We got all of that behind us by the middle of the year and then we were able to focus [on improving]."

The improvement that didn't show in Daytona was front and center the next weekend in California when Biffle stole the show -- beating out preseason favorite Johnson for the victory.

Since then, Roush said he's come to expect Biffle and the 16 team to compete for victories every weekend. Biffle says he expects the same but is hoping for even more.

"I believe that we've finally got everything in place and I really believe we can do anything," Biffle said. "I really believe we'll be in the picture for the championship."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.