Thanks to Hendrick engine woes and a late-race restart, Greg Biffle survived the 215 mph Michigan wire act last weekend to claim victory number two on the season. With the win, Biffle also reclaimed the points lead with a 20-point cushion to boot, breaking a veritable deadlock atop the points standings.
With the Chase looming large and Biffle looking the suitable part, the following equation naturally comes into question: does Biffle truly belong with the sport's elite championship contenders this year?
That’s the issue at stake in this episode of Bonus Points, a weekly feature in which Sports-at-Work writers Sam Salo and Luke Krmpotich debate a current issue in NASCAR, giving their takes on the way things ought to be. Sometimes, Sam and Luke will agree; other times, they may have slightly differing opinions; and on occasion, they'll be at each other's throats.
Each writer will also assign a "flag" value to his opinion on the question: checkered flag if it's a slam dunk, green flag if he's mostly convinced, yellow flag if it's a toss-up, red flag if he's pessimistic or black flag if he's dead set against the idea.
Sam: Right now, the mojo of championship contention is most often attributed, from us armchair crew chiefs, to drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, and Brad Keselowski. There's that almost intangible "stuff" that they strut that simply feels like championship material.
Fellas like Johnson and Stewart have the past stats to back up the good will, and relative newcomers like Keselowski seem to show that certain flair and metaphorical punch that so often defines a champion-level driver. Biffle, on the other hand, has always seemed to be one of the gentlemen just on the outside of the serious championship discussions. Strength is shown in spurts, but a whole season? Until the bitter end?
The proposition of Biffle as an elite championship contender this year is still not a solid one, but there is certainly merit to the 2012 discussion. He leads the points deep into the season; this isn't just a horse that ran strong out of the gate only to fade in the summer stretches. He's tied with teammate Kenseth for the second-most top-10's on the year (with 14). He is tied with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the second-most top-fives on the year (with 10). And, very notably, a more holistic point-of-view indicates strength from top to bottom as regards overall Friday-to-Sunday performance, with two poles and two wins on the year.
This is certainly the most complete year that Biffle has put together in his career, at least to this point in the season. The Chase, of course, is a whole different animal. It's usually the foremost arbiter that strains the superstars out of the pool of NASCAR talent, and until further notice, there is still proof needed that Biffle can fit that mold.
Until then, Biffle sees a yellow flag of cautionary championship odds. However, he's making 2012 look awfully sporty, and a green rag is close to the flagman's hand.
Luke: Greg Biffle has long resided on the periphery of serious championship contenders. He tied for second in just his third Cup season, back in 2005, and has three additional top-7 points finishes. After winning at Michigan on Sunday, Biffle has ascended back to the top of the standings, a position he occupied for a significant portion of the beginning of the 2012 season.
The one thing I fear he lacks, however, is the ability to go on a sustained hot run with the veritable (albeit metaphorical) fire of a Sprint Cup champion burning in his belly.
The No. 16 man has put together a fine season to this point, without a doubt. And I certainly don't expect him to fall apart during the Chase. Given the current trajectory of his race results and the history he's compiled over the last several seasons, I project him to be in line for a top-six championship finish.
Nevertheless, I have my doubts about Biffle truly being an elite threat for the title. I remember back in 2008 when teammate Carl Edwards won nine races and ultimately finished runner-up to Jimmie Johnson, that with a couple races to go in the season it was actually Biffle sitting second behind the No. 48. But even at that point, Johnson admitted that he was more worried about Edwards than he was about the No. 16.
Unfortunately, nothing Biffle has done over the last few seasons has done anything to change that overall attitude toward Biffle's capabilities. He doesn't make the Chase as consistently as teammate Matt Kenseth, and he doesn't have two runner-up title finishes as does Edwards.
Sure, Biffle is consistent enough, but that won't be enough to win a title--unless there is a collective collapse among all drivers answering to the names of Johnson, Keselowski, Kahne, Stewart, Kenseth, etc. And I don't see that happening. I expect Biffle to finish ahead of two or three of those men, but to outperform them all? No, he's not quite in that stratosphere.
In conclusion, it's a red flag for Mr. Biffle's (non)status as an upper echelon championship contender. Points leader he may be, but he's not a favorite for the crown come Homestead.
Final analysis: It's a close call, as Biffle and Team 16 receive a dubious yellow flag for their pretensions to top flight title contender bragging rights.