AVONDALE, Ariz. – With another top-10 finish, Greg Biffle will match Jimmie Johnson. That still may not be enough to overtake the dominating champion.
Biffle goes into Phoenix International Raceway tonight looking for his seventh consecutive top-10 finish to open the season, a feat last accomplished by Johnson – five years ago, the season before the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team began its unprecedented and ongoing run of four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championships.
Even with the best start in his career, Biffle is still second in the season points.
Guess who the Roush Fenway Racing driver is chasing, though it is a slim 14-point margin? Johnson, who has won three of the five races since finishing 35th with a rear axle problem at the season-opening Daytona 500.
“We’ve been good so far, and that’s not good enough,” Biffle said. “You’ll have to be flawless at this. And we’ve been good so far. We’ve been good everywhere we’ve been. That’s not good enough. We’re going to have to be better than that. We know that.”
Especially at Phoenix.
Johnson has won four of the last five races at the oddly shaped mile track. The eight victories by Hendrick Racing are the most by any team there, and includes Mark Martin’s victory last April that came 16 years after his only other Phoenix victory while driving for Roush.
Roush has the second-most wins at Phoenix with five, though Biffle has none. Biffle has three top-five finishes, his best there a runner-up finish to Johnson in November 2007.
After having two of the last four weekends off, including last week for Easter, the Cup drivers arrived in the desert for the start of a stretch of 14 consecutive races.
“You go away for a week and relax and recharge your batteries,” Johnson said. “When I came in and saw the cars, I got that feeling of goosebumps and got fired up to be back at the race track and looking forward to it.”
For everyone else, the challenge resumes to try to unseat Johnson from the top of the standings.
Biffle is the closest to doing that, though Matt Kenseth is only two points behind his Roush teammate.
Kenseth had finished in the top eight of every race until two weeks ago at Martinsville, when he and Jeff Gordon got tangled up during the final restart. Instead of another high finish, and possibly his first victory since winning the first two races of the 2009 season, Kenseth slipped to 18th while Hendrick driver Gordon finished third.
“I can’t say I’m happy about it, but yet it’s a new week,” Kenseth said. “Just got to forget about it and move on.”
Biffle said he is “really focused” on leading the points. He has won Nationwide Series and truck races at Phoenix, and a first-time Cup victory there could get him what he wants.
“Unless (Johnson) finished second and led the most laps, and he probably will. … We’re nipping at his heels. We’re going to keep him honest, that’s for sure,” Biffle said. “We’re in position to win races right now. I think we’re really close. We’re probably capable of winning here, I would say we’re capable of winning Texas and Darlington. We’ll keep at it, see what we can do.”
While his winless streak is at 50 races since driving to Victory Lane at Dover in September 2008, Biffle has won twice at Darlington and once in Texas, the 1 1/2 -mile high-banked track where the series races next week.
If Biffle can keep his top-10 streak going, he could get to Darlington in early May with a chance to tie Morgan Shepherd’s Cup record of 11 consecutive top-10 finishes to start a season set 20 years ago. Then, it would be back to Dover the following week.
Before all of that, there is the longer Phoenix race.
With NASCAR’s new standardized starting times this season, the Phoenix race will start around 4:30 p.m. local time, an hour earlier than last spring. In response to the earlier start time, the track added 63 laps, up to 375 laps, to ensure that the later stages of the races are run under the lights.
“It’s definitely going to be a lot different. The track is really slick during the day, cools down at night,” Biffle said. “More of the race is going to be run in the daytime now. Staying on the lead lap and keeping your car running good is going to be more important.”