One marquee driver having a rough 2013 got off the mat last week in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, as Tony Stewart got his first win of the season and rejuvenated his postseason hopes. Now Greg Biffle has to do the same, as the circuit heads to northeast Pennsylvania and Pocono Raceway for Sunday’s action.
Biffle is a veteran driver who started driving full-time in 2003 and placed 20th in his first two seasons. He made his first big splash in 2005 when he finished second and in the ensuing years, has enjoyed four additional Top 10 finishes, ranging from third to seventh. He’s never been outside the Top 20 and while the championship has eluded him, consistency has been a hallmark.
The last several weeks have not been kind to Biffle though. He got the year off to a good start with a sixth-place finish at Daytona and then from March 24 to April 13, finished in the Top 10 three straight weeks. But he’s fallen off the map since then, including three times where he’s been 31st or lower.
Biffle is still in wild-card contention. He’s in 13th place overall, and only eight points back of Jeff Gordon, who would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Biffle could also join Stewart as the only drivers between 11th and 20th with an outright win and move into the driver’s seat (no pun intended) for a wild-card spot that way.
I asked TheSportsNotebook’s in-house NASCAR fan, my brother Bill, for any insights on Biffle’s struggles. Bill traced it to a broader struggle that Biffle’s team, Roush Fenway Racing, is having since the high-profile departure of Matt Kenseth from the team at the end of last year. “Kenseth gave the mechanics and engineers a lot of insight,” Bill said, citing reports from NASCAR media outlets. While Roush Fenway driver Carl Edwards is having a good year, the team overall is having problems and Biffle has not been exempt.
There’s still enough time that Biffle doesn’t need to panic, but at the very least, this string of bad finishes has to end, and The Party In The Poconos (1 PM ET, TNT), at a venue where he won in 2010, is as good a time as any to reverse his fortune.
PARTY IN THE POCONOS
Yes, that’s really the name of the race. Well, the official name is The Party In The Poconos 400. And it takes place on a track that offers a unique tri-oval layout. All three corners and all three straightaways are a little bit different, resulting in two notable dynamics for the race.
The first is that the long straightaways are hard on fuel consumption and they affect a driver’s strategy. It becomes necessary to be more conservative in the pit stops, and not risk being left out on a straightaway running on fumes. At some tracks you can get away with it and push it to the max before refueling. There’s more risk with that at the Poconos.
Consequently, it creates a flow of the race that favors the early leaders, since not only do you have to be conservative with your pit stops, it’s tougher to just hit the gas hard and try and catch up.
But while it can be tough to catch up, the length of the track does make it less likely there will be accidents and a wipeout. I wouldn’t try and tell that to Jeff Gordon, who had a big crash here in 2006, but the odds say that if you start the race, you’ll finish it.
Gordon is still the driver who’s had the most success here, winning three times in the last 11 races. Between this record and his crash, I guess it’s safe to say that the surest bet is that something notable will happen with Gordon. Whether it’s good or bad is undetermined but he will surely be in the news.
Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson are all co-favorites on Sunday, slotted at 5-1. Next down is Kasey Kahne at 5-1 and Kyle Busch at 7-1. Then the odds move to double digits, with Gordon and Brad Keselowski at 12-1.