Busch Picture A Bit Clearer

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It seems as if, so to speak, the “men are being separated from the boys” in the NASCAR Busch Series championship chase.

While the above is certainly just an expression, the 2002 season is unfolding just as many predicted it would – with Greg Biffle and Jason Keller battling each other for the title. With 14 races left in the season, Biffle has pulled out to a 72-point advantage over Keller.

Jack Sprague is certainly not out of the chase by any means at 165 points to the rear of Biffle, but in recent weeks, it’s become clear that Biffle and Keller have become the class of the Busch Series field.

Scott Riggs is fifth in the standings, but he’s a distant 305 points back. Bobby Hamilton Jr. (375 back) is sixth and Scott Wimmer seventh (377 back), but with 14 races remaining, a deficit over 300 points, historically, has been awfully difficult to overcome.

After a solid rookie season in the Busch Series last year (five victories, two poles and 21 top-10 finishes), many believed Biffle was the clear-cut favorite to win it all. He got off to a slow start in 2002, but has come on strong lately with eight consecutive top-10 finishes and two victories in his last four races, including last weekend’s Charter Pipeline 250 at Gateway International Raceway.

Biffle took the points lead away from Jack Sprague earlier this month at Daytona, and hopes never to look back.

“We’re looking to win; we show up to win every week,” Biffle said. “Sometimes there are situations where I think about maybe not trying to make that pass, but not really. I pretty much show up to get the best finish I can and run the best I can. I’m not really thinking about points. No matter if you’re points racing or not, you’re trying to get the best finish with the kind of car you have that day.

“I’ve learned that I’m not always going to win with a fifth-place car, and sometimes you have to settle for a top-three or top-five finish. I want to get in the top five to have a good run each week. One, you get paid well, and that’s not just me, but the whole team, and, second, you get good points, and that’s also good for the race team. One kinda goes in hand with the other.”

Sprague – in his first full season in Busch after seven years in the Truck Series – looked like the man to beat back in June. But after earning his first career Busch Series triumph, at Nashville Superspeedway, Sprague has managed only one top-10 finish, a fourth at Gateway last weekend.

Biffle hasn’t let his Winston Cup dreams – he’s already announced that he and sponsor Grainger will move up to NASCAR’s elite series next season – slow down his quest for a Busch Series championship.

History is on the line for Biffle. Next year he’ll attempt to become the first driver ever to win Rookie of the Year titles in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions – Craftsman Truck, Busch and Winston Cup. If he wins the Busch championship this season, he’ll become the only driver to win titles in the CTS and Busch. Once that is accomplished, he hopes one day to complete the triple crown with a Winston Cup championship.

“I’d really like to win the Busch title to have one of each, one in the trucks and one in Busch,” Biffle said. “This is really my last opportunity probably for a while to be able to do it, unless I try to do double-duty for an entire season, which at some point will be impossible. NASCAR, all they have to do is make a small change to the schedule here or there, not intentionally, and it will be impossible for a guy to be two places at once. It’s almost that way now. And, of course, you have Mother Nature to deal with, so this is really my last opportunity to do it. I think we have a great chance at it. We’ve got really good momentum, and it really looks good.”
Standing in Biffle’s way is Keller, who enjoying the best season of his long and illustrious Busch Series career. Keller has a series-high four wins, but hasn’t been to victory lane since New Hampshire in May.

He has kept pace with Biffle, however, with five top-10 finishes in his last six races.

“Consistency is what it’s going to take,” Keller said. “Wins are nice, and we definitely want to win more races, but we know that sometimes you’re going to get beat on fuel mileage and things like that, and you have to be consistent and stay consistent, and that’s what our focus is really on.”

Keller has finished 20th or worse five times this season, 28th or worse four times. He hopes that “bad luck” is well behind him.

Keller also recently announced that he’ll be staying in the Busch Series with ppc Racing and sponsor Albertson’s for at least the next couple of years, yet another potential distraction he doesn’t have to be concerned with.

“Getting the deal done earlier was certainly in everyone’s best interest,” Keller said. “I know where I’m going to be next year, and I know that we’re going to have a sponsor next year and there are a lot of things that we don’t have to worry about. We don’t have to focus on different things; we can focus on the task at hand.

“Biffle knows where he’s going to be next year, although he’s not going to be the in Busch Series, he doesn’t have a whole lot of distractions, either. It’s going to be real tough down the stretch battling with that team. We’ve gotten caught up in two accidents and had two DNFs that we had nothing to do with (earlier this year). It was a case of people wrecking in front of us or people hitting us and causing a wreck.

“I hadn’t had but one DNF in the last 30-something starts, and I’ve had three in the last 10 races. And really only one of those was mechanically related that something we traced back that broke in the motor. Our consistency has been there over the last couple of years, but it seems like we've had some bad luck. We can’t have any more down the stretch because either myself or Biffle, or maybe even Sprague or my teammate Scott Riggs, somebody from here on out, I feel like is going to have a run of really, really good races and pull themselves away from the field.”

Both Biffle and Keller are beginning to do that. Whether one can pull away from other remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure – it’ll be interesting to watch.

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