The sun has barely risen on the Sprint Cup season, but Greg Biffle's prospects for a return to the Chase look awfully bright.
Biffle has finished third in each of the three races this season, elevating him into the points lead going into Sunday's race at Bristol. What is particularly significant about Biffle's consistency is that he's done it on three different types of tracks: the 2.5-mile restrictor plate at Daytona, the 1-mile at Phoenix and the 1.5-mile at Las Vegas. At all three Biffle's No. 16 Roush Fenway Ford has shown the ability to adapt.
Here's the most telling stat for Biffle: He had only three top-fives last season, finishing 16th in points and missing the Chase for the first time since 2007.
Greg Erwin had been Biffle's crew chief for those Chase seasons (from 2008 to 2010), but he was replaced midseason -- with 18 races to go -- in 2011. Matt Puccia, who had been a Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series crew chief for Roush Fenway, took over but wasn't allowed to revamp the team until the offseason.
Biffle had the speed for better results last year, but mistakes in the pits -- bad decisions, bad stops -- kept costing him. Puccia has rectified those issues.
"Just plain and simply, Matt Puccia is the reason why we're running and competing and finishing where we are," Biffle said. 'The team needed leadership. He was willing to step up and take the task on, [and he's] done a fantastic job so far.
"It has to do, 100 percent, with where we're at right now. That's why we changed and put the crew chief in charge last year."
Roush Fenway's No. 6 driven by David Ragan didn't have sponsorship for 2012. When it didn't materialize, Ragan was released and the personnel was put into a pool for Puccia to pick from for the No. 16.
"We were going to have a bunch of people that we could move internally around the company if we downsized," Biffle explained. "Matt, with free rein, got to pick the guys he wanted on the No. 16. It's all been Matt. Matt has done all this with some guidance from the company."
Biffle didn't have the speed to run down winner Tony Stewart and runner-up Jimmie Johnson at Las Vegas. But he was happy to take third.
"We knew some cars had better speed than us," Biffle said. "If we just hung tough, kept our track position, worked on it, we might be there at the end. That's certainly what happened. But it was clear that the No. 14 [Stewart] and No. 48 [Johnson] were just a little bit better than we were. So, you know, like we thought it would come out, we had about a top-five car and finished third, so we're super excited about it."
Biffle wasn't able to maximize opportunities like Las Vegas last year.
"There are kind of two different aspects as far as running good and not running good," Biffle explained. "The problem with last year, take [Las Vegas] for instance, we were about two-tenths [per lap] or so over the same speed -- a little faster -- than the leader the entire day and we finished five laps down [because of a fueling issue]. That's very, very frustrating, but you still leave with a lot of confidence going to the next race.
"After a while that will wear you down. Run good up to the last pit stop of the day, drop the lug nut, something happened, everybody did two [tires] but you did four, come out of the pits 15th and finish right around there after leading the most laps or running up front ... that really, really, really takes a toll on you because you know you're competitive, you know the car has speed and it's fast, but you just can't close the deal.
"With the changes we made in the team, that started to turn around. ... We're having good pit stops. The caution flag isn't coming out and trapping us a lap down or something after we had a green-flag cycle, so the confidence level is really, really high."
Biffle's next step in his resurgence is to win. He has 16 career Cup victories, the last in 2010 at Kansas. That's a span of 46 races. If he keeps running this way, it's only a matter of time before Biffle will put the 17th in the books.
"It certainly has started off to be a good season for us so far," he said. "But we want to win like the No. 14 car did [at Las Vegas]."