Several drivers may be sweating things out the next couple of race weekends, fighting tooth and nail to be one of the 12 drivers to compete for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion’s trophy by being a part of the 10-race post-season, otherwise known as the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
A few drivers can breathe pretty easily, especially most of those who find themselves in the top-10 in points heading into the last couple of races before the Chase cutoff, and maybe even Kasey Kahne, who has all but locked in one of the two wild card spots.
The drivers near the top of the championship points standings, points leader Greg Biffle included, can take it easy, if they want to, the next couple of weeks. After all, they’re already locked in.
Biffle recently participated in one of NASCAR’s teleconferences, fielding questions for the motorsports media. Topics touched on included the Chase, the next two races leading up to the Chase, and a look ahead to the 2013 race season, including Biffles new Sprint Cup teammate for next year, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Below, is a transcript of the recent teleconference:
NOW THAT YOUR TEAM HAS SECURED A SPOT IN THE CHASE, DOES YOUR APPROACH TO THE NEXT TWO RACES CHANGE?
“Yes it does and actually it has for the last few races, almost going back to Indy and Pocono and Michigan. We have been decent in the points so we have kind of tried to step out of the box and do some things to try and learn for the Chase and really be more aggressive with the setup and go for the win and say, ‘Hey, if it doesn’t work we won’t cry over spilled milk.’ That is all you can do. You can’t flip a switch. We are already running as hard as we can. The thing we can do it take some more chances on the setup, whether it might work for the race or not is basically what we have been doing. Obviously it didn’t work Saturday night at Bristol and we are hoping that at Atlanta it turns out more like Indy and Michigan for us than what Bristol did.”
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT HOW WITH STENHOUSE COMING OVER AND REPLACING MATT KENSETH NEXT YEAR WHAT THAT MEANS WITH TREVOR BAYNE BEING DISAPPOINTED. IS IT ONE OF THOSE DEALS THAT YOU JUST HAVE TO WAIT FOR YOUR OPPORTUNITY? SOME PEOPLE ARE CALLING HIM A ONE-HIT WONDER KIND OF GUY.
“Here is the deal. I think Trevor has a lot of talent. He is a talented guy. But here is the thing that people have to understand. If you look at the restrictor plate finishes going back lets say five years. Take Talladega and Daytona and look at the finishes, there is a different group of people in the mix typically than there is on a normal every day, what I am going to call a bread and butter NASCAR track. The mile-and-a-half, mile tracks. They are different guys. The reason for that is that the playing field sort of levels out at those places because it is a different driver ability at a restrictor plate track. I am not saying it is easy or that people get lucky, it is just a different driving characteristic and ability. The car is kind of the great equalizer. Actually all the cars are equal or are more equal there than anywhere. So, yes he won the biggest race that we have – the Daytona 500. Certainly you can’t say the guy got lucky or was in the right place at the right time, but you can overweight somebody by saying they won that race and he is going to take the series by storm. That is a false statement. Now, if he won at Texas or Darlington or some of these other places, that would be a bigger statement as far as competitiveness on what he is going to do in the series or what a driver – I don’t want to single him out – what a driver could do in this series versus winning at a restrictor plate track. They are just as hard to win. In a sense they are a different animal than our every day racing. I don’t know if that kind of makes any sense at all but it is different and to hold him to a higher court or higher level because he won the Daytona 500 is kind of unfair in a way. That is basically what I would say about that. It is a different style of racing, a whole different format and I think you can look at other finishes and read into what I am saying. Gilliland finished third and that is the best finish of those teams – of the 38 or some of the other teams. Some of those teams get their best finishes at those tracks sometimes and that is an indication that the playing field is a little more level.”
YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU GUYS HAVE BEEN TAKING RISKS WITH YOUR SETUP AND TESTING SOME THINGS OUT BUT YOU STILL HAVE HAD PRETTY CONSISTENT FINISHES. DOES THAT GIVE YOU CONFIDENCE GOING INTO THE CHASE?
“Yeah, you are exactly right. You are reading into the thing as a whole and that is where the confidence comes from with myself and the team. I feel like we have an opportunity to make a run at this Chase because even though we didn’t win we were off a little bit and finished top-10, top-five and what not. Yes, that is a whole bunch of motivation for us going forward. That and the 10 race tracks that are in the Chase. We have run good at them. There is only one that gives some trouble to us and that is Martinsville. We typically even as a company don’t run that well at that track but I do run better in the fall at Martinsville that I do in the spring for some reason. That is one that we are looking at but the other race tracks we are super excited about – Kansas, Chicago, Texas and we run good at Dover, Loudon, Homestead and Phoenix. We are jacked up about these race tracks and how good our cars and team is right now. We potentially could win two or three of those races fairly easily and have strong finishes in the other ones and that quite frankly could be enough.”
RICHMOND HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE TRACK THAT IS THE CUT-OFF TO THE CHASE. DO YOU THINK IT IS A GOOD TRACK FOR THAT AND WHAT MAKES IT A GOOD TRACK AS A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD TO MAKE THAT LAST TRY FOR THE CHASE?
“I think Richmond is a good track for that. It is a great short track, middle of the road for us and I would say it is a good track for the cut off. I really would. I like the tracks, and I am a little bias, but I like the tracks that are in the Chase. It is a good mix. The only ones that I would arguably say is that I would rather see something other than Martinsville. Having a restrictor plate race in it is kind of a bit of a gamble and bit of a roll of the dice. I think we need to go to Talladega for sure but I would rather see Atlanta in the Chase and Talladega prior to Richmond. Think about that. That would set up the wild card and the Chase or the run to getting in to the Chase and it would be just as exciting. You have a little more control of your destiny that way in the Chase than you would with a restrictor plate race. Everybody knows as well as I do that you could have a 15-20 car wreck at those places. It seems sometimes unfair that something like that can make or break your whole season.”
CAN YOU AFFORD TO BE AS AGGRESSIVE AT THE START OF THE CHASE AS WHAT YOU ARE NOW WHEN IT DOESN’T MATTER NOW WHAT YOU DO BECAUSE YOU ARE IN SUCH A STRONG POINTS POSITION?
“I think we will be and we will have to be pretty aggressive on the setups simply for the fact that we will have to be conscious of our finishes. That is going to be a huge factor but it is almost like if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. What we are doing is working. We are having consistent races so we are only going to be six points ahead of about half the guys in the Chase. We are only going to be three behind, as of right now, four of them. That could change this weekend but it is going to be really tight in the points. That 12-20 point cushion I have is all going to disappear and it is going to be really super tight on the points. Each position is super important. I think everybody realizes that going to Chicago. That is a strong place for us. We are going to go there with what typically we have tried at Michigan, Indy and Pocono and see how it works. We are getting decent fuel mileage. We just feel like we have to capitalize at the ones we feel really strong about and survive and get a top-five or top-10 finish at the ones that we end up missing it a little bit on.”
TONY STEWART THREW HIS HELMET SATURDAY NIGHT AND NASCAR ISN’T GOING TO PENALIZE HIM FOR THAT. ARE YOU COMFORTABLE WITH THAT, OR DO YOU WANT NASCAR TO STEP IN A LITTLE MORE?
“I completely agree with NASCAR about not penalizing the guy for throwing his helmet. We got a little carried away on trying to be too proper and I think we have in America all together. Some things that hurt us today are we are too politically correct and can’t make anybody mad and can’t play favoritism at all between someone that does a better job than the next person. Sometimes we can’t fire people. I think that we have gotten, in our society, a little too protective and in some cases sue-happy on just things that happen. I think that throwing a helmet – you are hot under the collar and expressing your displeasure for the guy. As long as it doesn’t get carried away – as long as it isn’t dangerous to the guy. Matt was on pit road and the guy didn’t run out in the middle of the race track. I think if it is kept within reason and it doesn’t get out of hand where every week we have someone throwing a helmet on the track then I think it is okay. Obviously anybody would ask for consistency within the rule on that. I think that is fair for everyone. That is the way I feel about it. Retaliating with our car – I have a much great problem with that. Allowing somebody that says on the radio that they are going to go back and retaliate and does it instantly after an incident happens, I don’t agree with that. If somebody gets spun out on accident or typically as a racing deal and the wrecked guy goes and fixes his car or lays and waits for the guy to come around and wrecks him, I think that guy needs to be penalized points and parked for the event. That type of retaliation I don’t agree with.”
WHAT KIND OF STATEMENT DO YOU THINK IT MAKES THAT YOU ARE LEADING THE POINTS AT THIS POINT AS OPPOSED TO JUST MAKING THE CHASE?
“Well, I tell you what, we have a couple races left but to lead the points for the second time this season it feels really good. It feels kind of gratifying and satisfying that we have been able to do that. Obviously when Jimmie Johnson got the lead after Pocono he took great pride in that and so did the media in pointing out the fact that the 48 team was back and all of the things that come with it. I think that I feel good for myself and my team more importantly and my crew chief Matt Puccia. They have done a tremendous job with pit stops and giving me cars to go and compete with to take the points lead. I think we have a strong chance at the title this year. Hey, we all understand that the wheels could fall off this thing the first or second Chase race and who knows what can happen. We have seen things from one extreme to the other but we are certainly proud of where we are at right now.”
ARE YOU RUNNING YOUR BEST MILE-AND-A-HALF CAR THIS WEEKEND OR ARE YOU SAVING THAT FOR THE CHASE?
“We are saving that for in the Chase. We are going to take the best mile-and-a-half car we have to Chicago. Our car lineup right now is phenomenal. We have the best cars that we have ever been able to build lined up for these next 12 races. To say that we have one that is better than the other is pretty hard to do, but we are taking technically our favorite to Chicago and we are taking a really, really good car, better than we have run all season, to Atlanta. We are in pretty good shape for cars.”
SHOULD THE POINTS LEADER AFTER THE FIRST 26 RACES GET MORE FOR DOING THAT?
“Well, obviously I am leading the points so I am going to have a biased opinion but a really truly unbiased opinion on this is that if you ask any driver and it is very difficult to lead these points. To be where you are in the points and to say that we don’t care what you have done in the first 26 races – we don’t care how solid of a team you are and you get no reward other than winning going into the Chase – that is a little undeserving of our sport. Our sport has been founded on for years the points system that rewarded being consistent and turning out good finishes and being able to ride the highs and lows. Run good at a road course and run good at a restrictor plate. I feel like you need bonus points for wins but you also need to seed the Chase maybe a ten through one for the top-ten drivers in that Chase. It would give us extra incentive to be fifth in points, be second in points, go for the win because you get the three bonus points for winning. I would say that before it had a much bigger discrepancy before they bonused it for wins from the top to the bottom but I feel like at least give them some kind of advantage or reward for leading. I think the guy that comes in the Chase seventh should have a couple point advantage that comes in 10th because he has done better and the team has done a better job over the regular season over the next guy. If the guy in 10th has a win or two then he can go ahead of that guy. I think that it should be done both ways. Reward for the wins but with a minor reward for being where you are at in the points.”
A LOT OF TEAMS REFERENCE WHAT TONY STEWART DID LAST YEAR IN THE CHASE AND GETTING HOT LIKE THAT. HOW REALISTIC IS IT TO THINK THAT COULD BE DONE AGAIN?
“What Tony did last year was remarkable. I keep going back to that and I will always remember a couple things in my career and one is me racing Tony for that last Chase spot. If you look back with like three races to go I had it. It came down to some final races that we slipped and we ran out of gas and had a bad pit stop and handed it to him and he came out and said, ‘We don’t even deserve that Chase spot because we are terrible.’ To go from there to winning the title and winning five races, you are right it gives a lot of teams inspiration that they are not that far off even though they may be running 15th. We aren’t that far off of winning races. It is such a small change from running 15th or whatever to leading these races and winning. That window has gotten so small and so competitive it is amazing. You look at us this past weekend. We led – I saw a stat that Roush Fenway led 111 laps of the Bristol race between the three cars and I was the highest finishing car in 19th. It is a dog-eat-dog sport and you can be from the top to the bottom in very little time.”
WOULD YOU BE SURPRISED IF YOU SAW THAT HAPPEN AGAIN?
“I think so. We have to think that it was pretty amazing what happened. Let’s face it, there is a lot of luck involved in this sport. You have to be in the right place at the right time and things went his way. He was about to run out of gas at Homestead or had to pit in the next couple laps and the caution came out. He was pitting that lap or something, I don’t remember. There were a lot of things that happened that I wouldn’t say put the championship in his hands but it put it within reach for him. If just one of those things doesn’t happen then he doesn’t win that title, or win five races. So, everything has to go your way. That tells you how hard these races are to win. You have to have everything go your way. You have to have great luck, great pit stops, fast cars and not make mistakes.”
HOW MUCH DOES YOUR SUCCESS AT THE TRACKS THAT ARE IN THE CHASE ALREADY THIS YEAR GIVE YOU CONFIDENCE THAT YOU ARE A TRUE TITLE CONTENDER?
“You are exactly right. You have done your homework. The stats speak for themselves. The other thing is that we run – why teams do this is kind of a mystery still – we run better in the spring and fall of the season and tend to be our weakest through the summer months. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know if it is the track lineup or the grip or who knows why. That gives us confidence as well that if we make the Chase we have a solid chance because it is the fall of the season with a good track lineup where we tend to run good at those places and that is one reason why I feel that. Also, how we are doing. Plain and simple it is our performance and how we compare to the 48 and 11 and 18, how we compare to those guys right now gives us a lot of confidence that we can run door to door with them for the final 10.”
YOU HAVE A TRACK CHAMPIONSHIP, NATIONWIDE CHAMPIONSHIP AND HAVE COME DOWN TO THE END BATTLING FOR THE CUP CHAMPIONSHIP. WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED DURING THOSE YEARS?
“It is painfully apparent that we have come close a few times and hopefully this is the season that we can make it over. It feels like we have been rolling a concrete ball to the top of the hill a couple times and we are trying to nudge it over the edge. In 2005 it was a pit stop – one pit stop that cost us the title in 2005. One pit stop. We have 10 races and I don’t know how many pit stops if you did the math in those 10 pit stops. We have to come onto pit road under green flag and make all those pit stops under green or a caution and every position is going to count for us. It is going to be no mistakes on my part, the team’s part, mechanically – we all know that. We are all aware and have prepared and continue to be preparing the best we can to be flawless in those 10.”
IF YOU WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP AND COMPLETE THE TRIFECTA YOU WILL BE IN A SPECIAL SPOT. DO YOU THINK ABOUT THAT WEEK TO WEEK?
“I don’t think about it week to week because it consumes me when I do think about it or talk about it or daydream about it for five or 10 minutes. Or when you are driving down the road – it puts you in a special spot in the sport. Because of my background and where I came from and how I did it, all of the things that go into that make it pretty overwhelming to think about to be in that position. I try not to think about it a lot. It is always right there when somebody mentions it but I am just thinking about how can I win it this year? That is what it comes down to. How can I do it? That is what I am focused on mostly.”
DO YOU HAVE A SPECIAL SPOT FOR IT IN YOUR TROPHY CASE ALREADY?
“Oh yeah. I don’t want to jinx myself and actually I haven’t done it yet. I am not superstitious but I have a spot picked out and have always said that I am going to build a trophy case with the center one missing and all of that but I am going to make it a special place when I do have the third one. I will proudly display my trophies. We are always kind of changing things around with a little addition on my shop here and there. I can’t wait for the day to complete that trophy case.”
Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR
– Follow me on Twitter @NASCARexaminer or like my page on Facebook: NASCAR Examiner
– Stock Car Spin is also on Twitter @SCSblog and has a fan/like page on Facebook: Stock Car Spin