By The Associated Press
Greg Biffle is searching for some of the 2005 magic that made him a contender for the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship.
Last year, he got off to a strong start with five wins and 10 top 10s in the first 15 races. Then, after a little slump, Biffle, who wound up as runner-up to champion Tony Stewart, finished as the hottest driver in the series, with 10 top-seven finishes in the final 14 races.
What a difference a year makes.
Heading into the Samsung/RadioShack 500 at Texas Motor Speedway a year ago – which he won – Biffle was second to Jimmie Johnson in the standings, trailing by 160 points.
Johnson is out front again, but Biffle, who has only two top 10s and no finish better than seventh in the first six races this year, will defend his Texas title Sunday from 18th in the standings. He trails the leader by 318 points.
It’s still early, but Biffle knows he has to get it in gear soon if his No. 16 Roush Racing Ford is going to get into the battle for a berth in the Chase for the championship and the title.
The 1.5-mile oval at Texas may not be his best opportunity to get things turned around, though. Biffle’s victory last spring is his only finish better than 20th in three Cup races at the Fort Worth track. But he remains hopeful.
“We’ve had a little bad luck this year, but we’ve got some really good tracks coming up and I know the team’s ready for them,” Biffle said.
“I really enjoy racing at Texas and this time we’re coming back as the defending race winners, so that adds a little to it. We’re bringing back the car that we raced this year at California and Vegas and won with last year at Michigan and Homestead.”
He had the best car in the California race, leading a race-high 168 laps, but wound up 42nd when his engine failed. The car produced a solid eighth-place finish in Las Vegas.
“Another win and another set of cowboy hats would be huge for the team this weekend,” Biffle said.
STEWART SMOKIN’: Tony Stewart, whose nickname is “Smoke,” is off to an unusually strong start – for him.
The two-time Cup champion is a notorious slow starter, but already has three top-five finishes. He has led laps in each of the first six races.
“Last year at this time we were all scratching our heads and asking what we had to do to get caught up,” Stewart said. “This year we’ve had a fast car everywhere we’ve been to and finally got a win last Sunday at Martinsville.
“Just knowing you’re competitive and having your program where it needs to be is the toughest battle,” added the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. “It’s those days when you aren’t running good and you aren’t winning races, but you don’t know what you need to do to get yourself into those situations, is when it gets frustrating.”
A year ago, Stewart ran into plenty of bad luck in the first part of the season, and it hasn’t all gone away. His car at California appeared to be second only to Greg Biffle’s before late-race engine failures sent both of them to the garage.
But Stewart is very encouraged by the good fortune he’s had already this season.
“We’ve been in a good situation all year because we’ve had really good race cars,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we can stop working to make ourselves better, because we know that’s what everyone else is doing.”
TEXAS TERRY: Terry Labonte was born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, and even though he has lived in North Carolina for many years, the loyal fans in the Lone Star State still consider the two-time Cup champion one of their own.
His biggest thrill at Texas Motor Speedway came in 1999 when he drove to one of his 22 career victories.
“I think my biggest memory of racing in Texas was the race that we won back there a few years ago when I passed Dale Jarrett late in the race with probably less than 10 laps to go,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever noticed the crowd.
“The whole crowd stood up. I thought to myself, Oh, God, I think everybody here is pulling for me. I can’t mess up here. They’re really happy right now. If I screw up, they’re not going to be.’
“We made the pass. We won the race. I thought that was the coolest thing.”
LITTLE E’S TEXAS: Texas Motor Speedway always will be a special place for Dale Earnhardt Jr. because that is where NASCAR’s most popular driver earned the first of his 15 Cup victories in 2000.
One reason it was a truly special day was because his father, Dale Earnhardt, was there to celebrate with Junior. The elder Earnhardt was killed in a crash at Daytona the next February.
“It was definitely one of my top moments because it was a wake-up call to the world that the Bud team was officially on the premises,” Earnhardt said of that day at Texas. “That was a special day and it was a very special Victory Lane, with my dad and all.
“I remember him popping his head into my car as I pulled into Victory Lane, and he told me that he loved me and to soak this all in because you can get so swept up with what’s happening all around you that you can’t enjoy it for yourself.
“Then he told me to find my own way home because he wasn’t waiting on me.”
STAT OF THE WEEK: No driver has won from a front-row starting position in the 10 Nextel Cup races at the Texas track. In fact, three of the last five Cup races there have been won by drivers starting 19th or lower.
By The Associated Press