Greg Biffle sprawled on the leather-swathed couch of the front compartment of his transporter, eyes fixed ahead, his mind poring over details of the first brief test session of the 2007 Sprint Cup season. It was cold this January afternoon at Daytona International Speedway and his shoulder ached from a wreck at a tire test at Las Vegas a month earlier.
Biffle often seems brooding, but was sullen, more quiet than usual, still sorting through the emotions of the recent death of long-time friend Benny Parsons, the 1973 Sprint Cup champion whose patronage had helped cull him from the nebulous unknown, convincing team owner Jack Roush to give him a chance at stock car racing's highest levels.
So, an ice-breaker. "Excited about getting engaged?" "It's just ... I don't know, I'm not getting any younger and I am ready to start a family, I think," he said, picking at a notebook on the miniature table in front of him. "That's kind of the next step in the process, I think.''
Biffle's media relations agent, seated a few feet away and working at a laptop, spun in her chair, clasped her hands next to a beaming face and channeled Biffle's now-wife, Nicole Lunders. "You're soromaaaantic." Such is the Tao of Biffle. He's just another dude trying to make it in this big, crazy world. It just so happens that his day job is a lot more glamorous than most of the timecard-punching guys he's still very much like.
If fan bases weren't cobbled like coalitions by marketers and sponsors, the 38-year-old Biffle would among the most popular men in the sport. He likes to drive fast, he comes from pedestrian beginnings, argues with his boss and wonders what in the world his lady is doing sometimes. He has a tricked-out golf car with flames on it, and has been seen in the infield at race tracks exercising his boxer, Foster, by doing figure-8s and having the dog chase him.
And after winning the first Chase for the Championship race on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, he again has a chance to become the first to win titles in NASCAR's top three series.
It's been a well-earned chance. Biffle was racing Late Models he'd built in his own shop in Vancouver, Wash., in 1995 when he decided to try for something bigger. He lugged his gear to Tucson, Ariz., for a made-for-television stock car series that featured some of the then-untapped West's best undiscovered talent.
Biffle won all but one race and became a favorite and a friend of Parsons, who was working the broadcasts as an analyst. Parsons lobbied teams such as Richard Childress Racing and Petty Enterprises on Biffle's behalf before Roush put Biffle in one of its truck series programs 18 months later.
Biffle had never sat in one before getting the job. "Biffle came from total obscurity," Roush Fenway president Geoff Smith said. "The résumé we originally got from Greg had none of the credentials on it you would accept to give a guy a break. He was basically a local track champion in a remote corner of the world that didn't have very much competition to evaluate him against."
Biffle validated Parson's faith and Roush's offer, winning five races and the truck series title in 2000, four races and the Nationwide Series crown in 2002. He gave Parsons a championship ring from each series. He has won at least one Cup race every season since his rookie year in 2003, and arguably would have added a first title at NASCAR's highest level in '05 had the team not left a lug nut loose during a late stop at Texas.
Forced to pit to tighten the wheel, he finished 20th, dropping 122 points behind eventual champion Tony Stewart with two races left. He finished second at Phoenix and won at Homestead to fall 35 points short.
Biffle was left explaining his then-girlfriend's behavior after a 2006 incident at Texas Motor Speedway when Lunders stepped up the ladder to Kurt Busch's pit box to confront his then-fiancée, Eva Bryan, after Busch sent Biffle into the wall and out of the race. Lunders' long march to the Busch box was followed on national television like a pro wrestling introduction and became the sensational news story of a slow week. "[Lunders] was just upset about it and really felt like Kurt was going to end up hurting somebody, and that's what she conveyed to Eva," Biffle said. "She wasn't mad at Eva one bit. They're friends and they talk and they do stuff.
"It was a matter of the safety for everyone was really the concern, and that was it." Perhaps ironically, he's appeared on the sitcom, Yes, Dear.
He says what he considers the truth and lets the particulars sort themselves out afterward, a guilty pleasure in NASCAR, where sanctioning body, tracks, promoters, sponsors and teams tie themselves in knots to present what they feel is the proper façade. After having a tire blow, hitting the wall and his No. 16 Ford catch fire at the Las Vegas tire test, he ripped the track's emergency preparation, saying he was allowed to fly home without being checked for a concussion, unleashing an avalanche of responses from the track.
Said Biffle after the incident: "They didn't have any medical people there either. They told me, "We saw you go by on fire!'' That's great, at least you could come help me.
"They had a wrecker, but they had no idea, no standard protocol. I was hurt. Standard deal is to hire an ambulance, but when you're in an accident like that, they ask, 'You feel all right? What day of the week is it? Were you knocked out? Do you remember everything?' Nothing. Here comes a truck. They gave me a ride.
"They had some people, but they were like, 'Do you need oxygen? Did you inhale any of that smoke?' The thing was on fire, I was like, Well, yeah." Biffle later softened his stance and let the whole thing go away, but hey, the man was trying to keep him down.
And speaking of the man, he's a lot like Dale Earnhardt. And that comes from Doug Richert, who was the crew chief for Earnhardt Sr.'s first championship campaign in 1980, then finished second with Biffle (by 35 points) in 2005. "It's two different eras of drivers, but they're very similar in that the comfort level both of them have in the car," said Richert, now an analyst for SPEED. "They're comfortable in whatever situation they get themselves into.
"They make good decisions behind a wheel instead of a scared one. They both have great ability. They can draft, they can road-race. They're all-around, good, well-rounded drivers."
But not at all romantic.