The sweet taste of victory: Greg Biffle, Kansas (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw / Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
KANSAS CITY, Kansas
Flat-out, wide-open, and get the heck out of my way, or eat my bumper: That’s the approach Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards are taking in this championship chase.
But Tony Eury Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief, has quite another – get through the first few chase events without making any major mistakes or taking a big hit in the points. Not that that strategy would have saved Kyle Busch, the hottest driver on the tour this year but now, after two mechanic problems in less than two weeks, all-but out of the title hunt heading into this afternoon’s pole runs for Sunday’s Kansas 400.
“We’ve got to start off with one goal—getting top-fives,” Eury says.
“Then your second goal is to win a race.
“But you’ve got to get that first one (goal) under your belt: Get us a good solid top-five, because those stats will stack up real early here in the first five races, which I think is most important.
“Then you can find out who you’re going to race to the end.
“You are going to have to win races at the end, but you can narrow it down, so instead of racing 12 guys you’ll be racing five guys.”
Of course that’s the game plan Jeff Gordon used last year, and it almost worked. Almost.
But Johnson’s go-for-broke charge was simply too much.
Rivals kept waiting for Johnson to falter or break, and he didn’t. In fact, Johnson actually got stronger as the chase went on.
That’s the game plan Biffle, Johnson and Edwards appear to have right now. And they’re hot.
But will they break? Will they falter?
Or, more correctly, will all three make big mistakes and stumble?
One man in the lead, perhaps yes.
But all three? Probably not.
Kansas 2007—Greg Erwin’s first NASCAR tour win as crew chief for Greg Biffle….and it was not without controversy. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
In fact Greg Erwin, crew chief for Biffle, says it may take as many as three wins to take this championship. If so, Erwin and Biffle are already two-thirds of the way there.
So what to make of Earnhardt and Eury?
They’re 129 points behind leader Edwards heading into Race Three of the 10-race chase. Fifth at Loudon, 24th at Dover.
This is their first season with car owner Rick Hendrick, and it’s been somewhat of a success. They’ve been much more consistent over the season than when at Dale Earnhardt Inc. But they’ve not dominated races, they’ve not pushed people around, they’ve not muscled their way to victory lane. Their lone tour win was on gas mileage at Michigan in June.
Changing that ‘Jeff Gordon’ approach may not come easy. But it better come fast.
Earnhardt himself has done a great job this season becoming a team player, not easy at a powerhouse operation where, despite his credentials, Earnhardt comes in as the number three player on the roster.
Actually the battle right now at Hendrick Motorsports would seem to be between Earnhardt and Gordon for the number two spot in the ‘rankings,’ since Johnson clearly has a lock on number one.
“I think a lot of people were arguing whether we would make the chase this year,” Earnhardt says. “We felt all along we would make the chase. And we made the chase easier than I anticipated.
“It was a relief. But you can also take that as a confidence builder.
“Now we have an everything to gain and nothing to lose mentality.”
Well, maybe not. Remember Earnhardt has been running the Cup tour since 2000 and only once really has he made any bid for the title. His old man won his first championship his second season on the trail….and that was as a decided underdog to the sport’s then-powerhouse teams and drivers. And the Big E added titles in 1986 and 1987 (will somebody please find that Chevy and put some real templates on it?), and in 1990 and 1991, and 1993 and 1994, and lost what would have been a record eighth title in 1995 to Jeff Gordon by just 35 points. Dale Earnhardt Sr. also lost the 1989 title to Rusty Wallace by just 12 points. So over a span of 16 seasons Earnhardt Sr. could very easily have won nine NASCAR Cup championships.
Catch your breath on that one….and now just image you’re Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s in his eighth season on the tour, he turns 34 in a couple of days, his best championship run was a third in 2003, and he’s driving for a team owner whose cars have seven of the last 13 titles.
But to win that first championship, if it’s to be this season, Earnhardt and Eury may have to get a lot more aggressive. Yes, Earnhardt has led a lot of laps, 875. But on any given Sunday he’s not been a major threat to win.
And so far Hendrick himself seems more concerned about keeping Earnhardt from “falling off the ledge” rather than pushing him to get up front and start rooting and gouging.
Teams that just try to protect what they’ve got usually don’t win championships.
However maybe Eury’s strategy will work over the next eight weeks.
But will it work here at Kansas Speedway, one of those ubiquitous 1-1/2-mile tracks?
This place should be like raw meat for Earnhardt. Second at Las Vegas, third at Atlanta, 12th at Texas, and fifth at Charlotte’s Lowe’s during the spring, Earnhardt started the year strong at these places. But he’s faded a bit. In the second half he ran 16th at Chicago and 23rd at Michigan (the two-mile he won at in June). And Earnhardt and Eury simply don’t seem to have that championship spark yet.
This Sunday’s 400 may be key to see if they can really get something going, because Charlotte, Atlanta, Texas and Homestead – similar tracks – are just ahead.
Kansas, Eury says, “is a lot like Chicago: It’s flat. The car has to stay turning. It’s basically what we call a horsepower track, because momentum carries you.
“It’s pretty important, because people are still getting sorted out through the chase, and you can get a lot of momentum going into Charlotte (in two weeks).
“A lot of people will bring out new motor packages here because it is such a horsepower track. It gives them a sense of what they’re going to have when they get to Texas.”
That Texas race, in five weeks, has become the make-or-break track for many championship contenders.
So right now Eury is braced for an earful Sunday from his driver, if things aren’t going so smoothly.
“Dale Jr. is strapped in that car and he has nobody to yell at, no way to vent,” Eury says. “He feels he needs to vent somehow—and a lot of times he’ll vent to me, because he knows it doesn’t bother me. I just blow it off.
“But a lot of people can’t take it the same way.
“I look at it as an older brother dealing with a younger brother.
“But sometimes big brother can tell you something and you really don’t want to take it serious…so it’s been great to have Rick up on the pit box to keep him calm.
“A big brother can tell you to stay calm, but you really don’t want to.
“Our deal is if he wants to vent, vent. It doesn’t bother me in the least.
“I know what he’s going through in the car. I understand what he’s trying to do.
“And a lot of times after the race—people don’t see it—but he’ll get out of the car and say ‘Man, you’ve done a great job. Thank you. I appreciate you putting up with me for the day.’”
Maybe Sunday here they can pat each other on the back like that in victory lane.
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Greg Biffle winning in the rain and darkness and controversy last fall at Kansas Speedway (Getty Images for NASCAR)