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Biffle thwarts Johnson in Texas

15 April 2012

Saturday evening's Samsung Mobile 500 under the floodlights of Texas Motor Speedway looked set to be a tale of three drivers. There was polesitter Martin Truex Jr. who led from the start, and then there was championship leader Greg Biffle who blasted past him for the lead on lap 31: between them they led all but 17 of the first 100 laps of this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

But just when they were starting to feel feeling cosy and in control of proceedings, along came five-time former champion Jimmie Johnson. He didn't hit the front until lap 113, but he would then go on to lead the most laps of the race by heading up 156 of the 334-lap race distance: as the race headed into its final stages, it seemed that no one had any answer for the #48 this week.

Biffle had faded a little after his early strong run, and from lap 113 to lap 304 he led only one single solitary lap during a green flag pit stop sequence. Most of the rest of the time he seemed to spend staring at Johnson's rear spoiler, wondering what on earth he had to do to break his 49-race long drought of wins that stretched back to October 2010 when he has last visited victory lane in Kansas during the Chase.

"I was foaming at the mouth," admitted Biffle of his need to get back to winning ways. "When you haven't won in a long time, [it] didn't matter who it was, whether it was a five-time champion or what. I was driving my heart out. I was doing all I could do."

And then on lap 303 Biffle made his move, closing up on the #48 and diving underneath Johnson in turn 3 for the lead next time around, powersliding up again to head off the counterattack. It paid off, but Johnson wasn't going to be shaken and he hung on to the rear of the #16, the gap never more than a second as the duo pulled away from third-placed Mark Martin.

But just when you thought Johnson was merely taking a breather and gathering himself for the final assault, the #48 slid up too high and brushed the wall in turns 3 and 4 with 15 to go on the 1.5-mile banked oval speedway. The damage was light and Johnson was able to continue, but it took the shine off the car and prevented him from mounting his strike on the leader.

Biffle sailed away, and grew suddenly worried when he realised that Johnson was no where in sight. "It kind of spooks you when you can't see him," he admitted. "It seemed like when I got to him that it was almost too easy. I don't know if he used up his tyres or what. He had a little trouble in traffic and that is why I could close in on him.

"I just dug deep," he continued. "I knew I had to do it and I kept trying and trying and trying. I knew the team would forgive me if I wrecked it trying to beat him so I just gave it all I had."

And all he had proved easily more than enough, leaving Johnson having to settle for second place safely far ahead of Mark Martin in third. "I'm definitely disappointed," Johnson admitted. "We had a great race car and there's a lot to be proud of here today. Our pit stops were amazing. We had a very, very fast race car."

Johnson agreed with Biffle's suggestion that it had been lapped traffic - specifically Stewart-Haas' Ryan Newman - that had been the decider in the closing stages and meant that he and his team mates Jeff Gordon (who finished fourth), Kasey Kahne (seventh) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (tenth) are still to deliver the long-awaited 200th win for team owner Rick Hendrick.

"A little bit more respect through some lapped traffic could've been a little different," he said. "I just got tangled up in some lapped traffic and the #16 made a great move and got by me and then I was pacing him from there and didn't have anything left to go get him. I tried and ran out of grip going into turn three and drilled the fence but I brought it home in second - I'm very proud of the effort."

His newest team mate Kasey Kahne was lucky to recover from an early setback which saw him get blocked in his pit stall by Bobby Labonte pitting just ahead of him under green on lap 44.

"I really don't know what the #47 was thinking," said Kahne, who has been no stranger to undeserved bad luck so far in 2012. "I am getting ready to take off and he is coming in. He over shot the pit because he knew I was getting ready to take off. So, he over shot his own pit.

"As soon as I saw his guys jump off the wall, I just hit the brakes and got superlucky," he continued. "We could have torn the right-front up. I'm glad it didn't happen but we definitely had to fight back. That slowed us down a lot. We probably lost ten seconds on that at least."

But he was looking on the bright side of the incident as well. "It's nice to put a full race together and have to go through a lot of adversity through the race and still get a good finish," he said. "We all got better as it went so that was good. I'm not pleased yet, but it was good. We have some work to do. We have to start these races better."

The race proved remarkably free of cautions, with just a yellow for debris on lap 67 and a second for more debris after Wood Brothers' part-time driver Trevor Bayne hit the wall on lap 93. Just ten laps in total were run under yellow during the evening, which meant that the final 233 laps of the race were run under a continuous green flag - a track record.

"I love it, I love races like that," was Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s view of the extended caution-free period. "I know that it's probably not the most exciting thing as a green-white-chequered or watching the field with a lot of cautions, but those races to me are really strategic and I can appreciate then for what they are. I think there are positives to having a lot of cautions and positives to race caution-free in my mind."

Even so, the 500-mile race lasted a gruelling three hours and ten minutes. It was made even harder work by the drivers having to cope with the 30mph winds gusting through the region on the edge of the vicious storm fronts tearing through the southern US that had been bringing tornados to neighbouring states.

"Oh, man - the wind was something else. It was terrible for me," said Earnhardt. "Down the front straightaway it was weaving around and bobbing and you didn't know which way it was going to go and you'd get in the middle of the corner and pivot the car through the corner and the wind would blast the door of the car and turn you sideways. You didn't know when you was going to get a gust out of nowhere and almost spin you out."

"The car handles a little different on each lap with the wind blowing like that," admitted Biffle's Roush Fenway Racing team mate Carl Edwards who came home in eighth place at the finish. "It made it interesting and made you think a lot."

The third RFR driver, Matt Kenseth, was rarely out of the top five all evening and duly finished in fifth place, just ahead of polesitter Martin Truex Jr. The final member of the top ten club was Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick in ninth place, who overcome a number of issues during the race.

"We lost a lot of ground on the second stop," he explained. "We fought the handling back in traffic after that and the car got too loose. There at the end it started to get really loose in 3. All in all, this is better than I've been here lately, so we'll take that and work on what we need to improve for next time."

Joe Gibbs Racing duo Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin just missed out on the top ten but were the final cars left on the lead lap after that massive green flag run. Tony Stewart - who won the last race held at Texas in 2011 - finished a disappointing 24th place after having to take to his backup car following a practice accident on Friday.

Even more disappointed was Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski, who finished in 36th position 22 laps off the lead after an extended visit to the garage for more problems relating to the blue deuce's fuel pickup system, having run in the top ten for most of the first half of the race.

Biffle's win on Saturday night gave car owner Jack Roush a clean sweep of the NASCAR events at Texas, following Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s Nationwide race win the previous night for Roush Fenway Racing, which meant that for a second night running his trademark fedora was replaced by the race winner's five gallon cowboy hat.

"If the pit stops are good, if the crew chief's decisions were good, if the engine ran good, if the driver did a great job recovering from some adversity, I consider that a win," he said, celebrating Biffle's comeback to victory lane after RFR undertook a series of organisational changes after a disappointing 2011.

With an early victory for Biffle in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and a comfortable 19pt lead in the championship standings, all those changes are most definitely paying off for Biffle, Roush and the rest of the team so far this year. Will it power a run through into the Chase and a serious challenge for the Sprint Cup?

Full race results and championship standings available.


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