Is Greg Biffle underrated?
For the last two seasons at Roush Fenway Racing, the veteran driver has faded into the landscape rather than receiving the accolades he or his No. 16 3M Ford team deserve.
It has absolutely nothing to do with his performance. He led the points standings for 14 of the first 24 races last in 2012.
Whether or not he is underrated has nothing to do with his resume. Let's not forget that The Biff, who owns Truck and Nationwide series titles, is the only driver in the Sprint Cup ranks eligible for NASCAR'S Triple Crown.
Yet despite all the drama surrounding his fellow Roushketeers -- with Carl Edwards' highly publicized contract negotiations two years ago, Matt Kenseth's unexpected defection last year after 13 seasons and an ongoing struggle for sponsorship -- Biffle's program was strong in 2012. He gained traction the more he worked with crew chief Matt Puccia, who took over the role in mid-2011.
Can he build on that this season?
After five months of getting acclimated to his new pitboss and Puccia's ability to fine-tune his team in the offseason, the No. 16 burst out in 2012 as championship contenders. Biffle led the points standings for 11 of the first 13 races. He returned to the top of the chart entering Richmond International Raceway prior to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But when the standings were shuffled to reflect wins and reset for the final 10 races, Biffle dropped to fifth place in points -- where he finished for the season.
So what went wrong? The Chase.
"Our highlight was leading the points for over half of the season," Biffle said of 2012. "That was a big accomplishment for us. It showed that we had consistency -- we could race on all different tracks -- and won twice.
"Of course, it stopped there because when the Chase started we looked like a 25th-place team that just got lucky and made the Chase instead of coming into the Chase leading and dominating like we were. That was some difficulty for us."
Puccia agrees that the final 10 races of the season caught the team off guard. Roush Fenway Racing traditionally shines at intermediate tracks. However, the inconsistency Biffle experienced at Chicagoland Speedway set the tone to kick-off the Chase. Biffle's loose wheel at Dover and his self-inflicted wreck at Kansas Speedway did not help the team's cause.
"We thought that the tracks we were going to be strong on, we were actually weak on and vice versa," Puccia said. "We have to work on our weaknesses. But we've learned from our mistakes. We're going to go into this season with a little different philosophy and direction and work on our weaknesses."
For Biffle, that means a level of preparation for the final 10 races that's second to none. While he believes the team worked diligently to strategize a system, to be the best the No. 16 team will have to step up.
In the immediate future, however, the focus for every team will be getting the Generation 6 cars up to speed. Early on in the Daytona International Speedway test, the Fords appeared to lag behind the Chevrolets and Toyotas. However, the Wood Brothers' Ford posted the fastest speed (199.650 mph) overall in the draft and Biffle topped the chart in single-car runs for the three-day session with a lap of 194.936 mph.
Although teams will have a better idea how each stands up against the competition following this week's Thursday-Friday test at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Biffle was encouraged with the results from Daytona.
"It was amazing how we unloaded off the truck," he said. "The thing didn't hit the racetrack. We have made very, very little gains on the race cars because they have them so good at the shop now that it is amazing when you come to the track. You can't find a whole lot to make them better."
The new Gen 6 car presents its own set of challenges for the No. 16 team, but Puccia is up for the task.
"It has a different overall balance and the rules have changed with the rear-end housing, the weight, taken away the rear sway bars, it's going to take a while to adapt to," Puccia said. "The way we set up our cars will take a while to get used to and be able to adapt to Greg's driving style.
"Hopefully, we'll come out of the box running strong and when we get to the Chase, be ready to do our business."
After all, in Kenseth's absense, Biffle now has sole seniority in the Roush camp. With Ricky Stenhouse Jr. transitioning from Nationwide Series champion to the Sprint Cup Series and Edwards cummuting from Missouri, Biffle's leadership will be key to the overall success of Roush Fenway Racing.
And if this team can regain its consistency early in the going, then Biffle's 16th season with Roush Fenway Racing might be his sweetest one yet.