Are Biffle, Truex legit contenders?
The top of the Sprint Cup Series standings is a strange place eight weeks into the season.
There's points leader Greg Biffle, who hadn't held that position for more than two weeks in his 10 previous seasons, and whose current run has hit six weeks. Second-place Martin Truex Jr. has never sat higher in his career. In fact, there's only one driver in the top six with a series championship to his credit, third-place Matt Kenseth.
But early seasons are often ruled by the unexpected. It's why so many in this business qualify statements by saying "It's still early but ..."
Early or not, the question remains: Will we still be calling Biffle and Truex title threats when the Chase hits?
Here's why you should buy, and why you should sell, Cup's current No. 1 and No. 2 drivers as legitimate threats for their first championship.
The 42-year-old is admittedly feeling a sense of urgency during what might be a rare chance at a Sprint Cup championship. While Biffle may not have a Cup title on his résumé, having come oh-so-close in finishing second in 2005 and third in '08, he's won championships. Having already claimed the Truck Series (2000) and the series formerly known as Busch (2002) crowns, he could become the first driver to win titles in all three of NASCAR's top series. Bonus: If he wins, you'll now know the answer to a trivia question.
It's interesting that amid a fast-running Roush Fenway Racing fleet, which boasts a pair of perennial title contenders in teammate Kenseth and a rising Carl Edwards at ninth, it's the Biff who's emerged as the stable's best bet so far.
Tony Stewart proved last year that victories, not consistency, are the key to a title these days, and Biffle has rarely been one to win in bunches, producing more than one win three times in the last seven years, although the last multi-win season did come in 2010. He'll need to reach Victory Lane multiple times before the Chase to get some precious bonus points and during it to keep the pace.
It would be preposterous to expect Biffle to keep up his current pace of a 5.9 average finish for the whole season, and you have to wonder if he's peaking too early. A year ago Edwards led the standings for 15 of the first 22 weeks only to miss out on a title. It was the same ending for Kevin Harvick in 2010, Jeff Gordon and Stewart in '09 and Kyle Busch in '08. Can Biffle avoid adding his name to that list?
Martin Truex Jr.
Then there's the state of Michael Waltrip Racing. Truex is on a roll; first-year teammate Clint Bowyer has been steady, sitting 11th; and the team's third Toyota, the No. 55, is delivering whether its Mark Martin or Brian Vickers behind the wheel. MWR has clearly tapped into something, and Truex is taking advantage.
The 31-year-old is also in a contract year. He's never been, at least publicly, on the hot seat, despite a five-year winless drought. Team owner Michael Waltrip said last weekend that the organization is negotiating an extension with Truex and primary sponsor NAPA. But until that deal is inked, proving himself has to remain a motivator for Truex.
He's also had his share of troubles on the tracks that make up the Chase. While he's been great at Homestead, the site of the season finale, holding a 10.4 average finish, he's been 18.2 or worse on five of the playoff circuits and has one or less top-five finish on seven of them.
Before ascending to the No. 2 spot after last week's fifth-place at Martinsville, Truex had never been higher than sixth in the standings, and that was a spot he held for all of two weeks in 2007. Outside of that, he's spent 11 combined weeks inside the top 10 in points over the six previous seasons as a full-time Cup driver, finishing 11th in '07 and within the top 20 just two other times. This could be his breakout year, but Truex is largely still an unproven element as a Cup contender even with two Nationwide titles on his résumé.