DARLINGTON, S.C. – Greg Biffle managed both to dominate, and make a show of, Saturday night’s Dodge Charger 500.
The race around storied old Darlington Raceway was a duel from the start – Biffle in his Ford vs. – well, fill in the blank, depending on which stage of the race.
Jeff Gordon was the last driver Biffle held off to get his first victory of the Nextel Cup season. Before that, Biffle had dealt with his own teammate, Matt Kenseth – and before that, Gordon’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson.
As things turned out, the finishing order was Biffle, Gordon, Kenseth, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Of those, Earnhardt was the only one who hadn’t given Biffle a hard time during the evening.
Biffle hadn’t won since the last race of last season, and “it seems like 110 races, rather than just these 11,” he said of his previously luckless start to this season.
“Man, after what we’ve been through, we needed this,” said his crew chief, Doug Richert.
Biffle used the lapped car of Ken Schrader as a pick to hold off Gordon’s strongest bid, with two laps left.
“I had one good run on Biffle, and we were coming up on Schrader,” Gordon said. “I needed to turn down, and Schrader kind of messed up my line. But, hey, Biffle did a great job, and we’re very happy to finish second.”
Biffle won a race off the pit road with the other front-runners, under the green flag, with 50 laps remaining of the 367. But it took him until lap 319 to pass other cars still cycling through their green-flag stops and take the lead for keeps.
He finally came out on top of a race that had been a roller coaster of alternating dominance and catch-up for him.
He’d had to regain command of the race with 103 laps left.
Biffle then set about steadily padding his lead on Johnson, while Gordon slipped into third, the first time he’d surfaced as a threat all evening.
With 80 laps left, the scourge of Darlington, severe tire wear, began to tell on Biffle again. Johnson and Gordon began closing on Biffle, and with 65 laps left, the two Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets caught and passed Biffle’s Ford. Two laps later, Kenseth moved around Biffle into third.
Then the Hendrick drivers got into a duel. Gordon took the lead on lap 308, but Johnson took it right back on 309.
But Gordon roared back past Johnson on lap 312, and Johnson’s tire wear began to show, as Kenseth moved into second place, just before the final round of pit stops.
For Tony Stewart, the defending Nextel Cup champion who’d gotten off to an excellent start this season and came into the race second to Johnson in points, this was an atypically rough evening. He was running 17th when his Chevrolet snapped around in turn 3, apparently without making contact with another car. Stewart’s car wasn’t damaged seriously, and he was able to continue. Stewart finished 12th.
Dale Jarrett stayed out under that caution just to lead a lap for five bonus points, but the real running order out of the pits was this: Kenseth, Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Newman and Biffle. Earnhardt Jr. had moved up to sixth.
Kenseth continued to command through the halfway point, lap 184, but Johnson hung close, within one second, with Biffle back up to third.
Johnson took the lead on 191 and held it easily until the fifth caution came out on 212 due to a shredded tire on Travis Kvapil’s car. Then Johnson won the race out of the pits on lap 213, followed by Kenseth, Newman, Biffle and Earnhardt.
Elliott Sadler’s crash with 120 laps left brought out a caution that settled things down to the strongest cars in the field: Johnson, Biffle and Kenseth, with Earnhardt and Gordon in the hunt.