- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Is there a Greg Biffle out there lurking in the shadows this season? A driver on the outside looking in at the Chase for the Nextel Cup, just poised to strike?
The answer to that question may not be known until sometime in 2006, perhaps early in the season. After all, it didn't take long this year to realize that Biffle's season-ending win at Homestead, Fla., back in November was far from a fluke.
A hot finish in '04 helped launch Biffle as he won five times the first part of this season on his way to a berth in the Chase. He was just one of two drivers outside of the Chase to win in the final 10 races last year, joining Joe Nemechek, who took the top spot at Kansas.
Nemechek was hopeful as well that that win would vault him into the Chase. That didn't happen, so Nemechek's once again looking to finish strong.
"We have our own Chase, and that's to finish off the year with results that will put us 11th in points when the checkered flag waves at the season finale in Homestead," Nemechek says. "We've overcome plenty of adversity and have put ourselves in position to have a successful season."
At least Nemechek can look forward to returning to MB2 Motorsports next year, so a strong finish this season could pay dividends.
Teammate Scott Riggs is excited to be moving on to Ray Evernham's operation in '06, but that means it could be easy for him to view the final nine races as simply playing out the string.
Riggs, though, is hungry for his first Nextel Cup win, so he's going to try his best to end the year on a high note. And although he won't be back with his current team, any success now can only help.
"We may not be in the Chase, but we've still got something to prove," Riggs says. "We've known since the beginning of the season that this team is capable of a win, and we still believe that. That's why we're going to continue racing as hard as ever to get there."
For the likes of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Elliott Sadler, the goal is to begin meshing with revamped crews in order to return to the Chase next season. Each missed out this year after being in the inaugural Chase.
At New Hampshire, Gordon began working with Steve Letarte, who has assumed the crew chief duties formerly held by Robbie Loomis. Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, was reunited with Tony Eury Jr. and Sadler will begin working with Kevin Buskirk, his interim crew chief.
Sadler will be looking to prove his first half of the season was a true indication of his team's potential, even though crew chief Todd Parrott has returned to Dale Jarrett's team once again. But any momentum Sadler regains may not carry over to next year if he's adjusting to a new crew chief.
But even before the change, Sadler was looking for a way to get back on track.
"We're going to go out and work on our program, try to win some races and run good," Sadler said at New Hampshire. "Yeah, we missed the Chase, but we've got a shootout going on for 11th place, and we're racing against some great race teams. Anytime you're racing against Jeff Gordon and Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Joe Nemechek, Dale Jarrett -- we've got a lot of great race teams to race against for 11th place, and we're going to do the best we can.
"We want to run good, we definitely want to win a race, that was a lot of fun last year, and we're just going to keep on working hard and see what happens."
The goals for Sadler are to improve his team's short track program, which will be the focus at Martinsville, Va., and to improve on the mile-and-a-half tracks that make up much of the schedule these days.
"We just got certain little steps that we need to try to take care of and make our race team better and better, and make improvements, and we need to do short steps at a time," Sadler says. "The best way to do that is week by week, not month by month or not looking all the way ahead to Homestead or looking all the way to next year to the new [Ford] Fusion, but right now we need to race week to week and just try to get our program better by just inch by inch."
Gordon knows the drill, though the circumstances are a bit different since the Chase didn't exist in 2000. That year, Gordon struggled to find consistency during Loomis' first year at the helm.
Things started heading in the right direction late in the season and that paid off with Gordon's fourth championship the following year.
"I don't really care where we end up in the standings, we just need to get prepared for next year," Gordon says. "We need to get things turned around so that we don't put ourselves in the same situation.
"This season has been disappointing, but I look forward to the challenge of getting things turned around and battling for wins the remainder of the season. We want to get some momentum on our side and carry it over to next year. We've been in this situation before and rebounded."
It's a new situation for Earnhardt Jr., who has struggled like never before in his Cup career. Still, Earnhardt Jr. thinks things will eventually turn around.
"Hopefully by working with [Eury] Junior I'll be able to learn something about the [chassis] adjustments [needed] in the race. So it's going to be huge," Earnhardt Jr. says of the year's final races. "Hopefully we can get a couple of wins. At Phoenix, I'm going to drive the car that Michael [Waltrip] ran second with and that I won with the year before. So hopefully we'll get a good strong top-five run there. And Tony Jr. is determined to go to Talladega and try to win that."
Ken Schrader, meanwhile, boils the final races for those outside of the Chase to its essence.
"Nothing changes for us over these last 10 races," Schrader says. "Our goal remains the same. That's to go out and try to get around that circle a little faster than the next guy. What a lot of people don't understand is, even if you aren't in the top 10, you're still points racing. Every position that you can finish higher in the points pays more than the next.
"Our goal is to finish in the top 25 [in points]. Two years ago we finished 36th, last year we finished 31st. Well, right now we're better than that and we're showing signs of improvement. But for us, we want to finish in the top 25. It pays more, plus you qualify for more NASCAR contingency awards for 2006."
And Kyle Petty knows the end of the year may just be enough to launch someone outside of the Chase to next year's championship. It sounds implausible, but just ask Biffle one year later.
"I think there are guys who build huge momentum the last 10 races of the year. I think that carries over into next season," Petty says. "Greg Biffle is a great example of a guy who came on strong at the end of last season. He carried that momentum over the winter and this year was solidly in the Chase. It was all because the way he performed earlier this season rather than recently.
"I think you have to take these 10 races and approach them as a head start for next season. I think you can test some of the tracks that are on the schedule for early next season. You can just think ahead for early next season and hopefully get a lead into that. The last 10 races are still important for everyone out here. If they weren't, you'd just see 10-car races."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
Although their title hopes are dashed, those who missed the Chase aren't giving up on the season. There's still plenty to race for.