With four laps remaining Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway, Greg Biffle glanced at the vehicle behind him and saw a glimpse of blue.
"Is that him in my mirror?" the Roush Fenway driver asked on the radio, and with good reason. Him referred to Jimmie Johnson, who showed flashes of his old five-time championship form in Fort Worth, leading more circuits around the 1.5-mile oval than any other driver. But Biffle had muscled by him with 30 to go, and he was trying to save a little fuel just in case, and of course there was a 49-race winless streak weighing on his car like a grand piano strapped to the roof, and he didn't want a caution, and there were so many other things to worry about as his drought seemingly neared its end.
"It kind of spooks you when you can't see him," Biffle said later. Of course, at the time he would have needed a telescope to find Johnson, who was a distant three seconds behind. The car in his wake belonged to Bobby Labonte, who was three laps down. There was absolutely nothing to keep the Roush stalwart from cutting through the brisk Texas wind to record his first victory since October 2010, and in the process further bolster his claim to the Sprint Cup points lead.
After spending a season watching his program being rebuilt while teammates Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth waded hip-deep into the championship hunt, Greg Biffle is back. That never seemed more certain than Saturday night, when he not only wrenched away a victory Johnson appeared to have well within his grasp, but at the same time recorded just the kind of win that fully legitimized his place at the top of the standings.
"It certainly doesn't hurt," said Biffle, who has been the Sprint Cup leader all but two weeks of this young season. "... To win like this and put a bunch of ground on the guys, all the cars behind us, that certainly makes a statement, I think, for all the people that were wondering if this was kind of a fluke that we were still leading the points this far in."
Fluke? Forget it. It wasn't just that Biffle won, snapping a skid that went all the way back to Kansas in late 2010. It was how he did it, with a little bit of moxie, elbowing past the No. 48 car and then pulling away when Johnson fishtailed into the wall. Johnson had been so dominant for so much of the race, but lap after lap Biffle had watched the leader put his left-front tire down at the bottom of the race track. He tried the same thing. "I started closing in on him instantly," Biffle said, and suddenly he was beating Johnson with his own tactic, and in an instant the No. 48 car went from overwhelming favorite to having almost no chance at all.
In a race that featured no accidents and a somewhat amazing 233-lap green-flag run to the finish, it was a stunning turnaround. With the wind whipping at up to 30 mph, drivers were more hesitant to battle side-by-side. With so few cautions, opportunities to improve cars were scarce. With Johnson ahead by so much for so long, everyone was dusting off comparisons to his championship years. And then it all changed, and the No. 16 was powering to the checkered flag, and the right side of Johnson's car was scraped up, and suddenly it felt like the 2005 season where Biffle won five races and finished second in points.
"I was foaming at the mouth," Biffle said. "When you haven't won in a long time and you've got a guy that's it doesn't matter. 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."
With good reason, given Biffle has been a mainstay at Roush for so long, and found his program so sidetracked last season. With new crew chief Matt Puccia at the helm and a number of new support personnel in place, the fortunes of the No. 16 team have improved considerably. But getting there hasn't been easy for a driver who won a title in what's now the Camping World Truck Series, and a championship in what's now the Nationwide Series, and has long been chasing that final but most elusive piece of NASCAR's triple crown. Through 49 winless weeks, he was sustained by the belief the pieces were in place for an eventual turnaround.
"Yeah, it'll wear on you," Biffle admitted. "You know, it'll take years off your life. I've probably lost several. But you know what, I've been doing this deal a long time, and what kept me going or what keeps your spirit up is when you ran good. ... Eventually, you're going to win again. When you can't run very good, when you're running in the 20s and you're not fast and competitive, then there's time to worry about how you're going to win. Because if you're running 20th and that's the best you can run, you're not going to win. And what has gave me confidence over the last 49 races is we have run good. We just haven't completed the deal. We haven't finished.
"That's why we didn't make the Chase last year. We ran plenty good enough. No matter what we did, we couldn't finish where we had run, and what's been the difference this year is Matt makes the right decisions on pit road and makes the right calls in the team. [He] doesn't make mistakes, and has the cars prepared right, and we're qualifying better and all those things. That's what keeps you going. You know, I've been where I won six or nine wins in a season, and you cherish those moments because you don't know when the next one will be."
Car owner Jack Roush, long a solid supporter of a driver he first hired to drive in the Truck Series in 1998, took solace in small victories as he watched one winless week for Biffle stretch into another.
"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," Roush said, his usual fedora replaced by a cowboy hat. "On the other hand, if we break a part or we miss an opportunity that was clear to everybody to see, then I consider that a loss, and I take that to heart. But through the drought ... there was lots of encouragement. We didn't come back and find that we needed to really revolutionize or to replace and tear up our hardware package. It was really an unusual thing when we went after the team the way we did last year and said, 'You know, we've just got great people, but they're not just working together as well as they need to and we need to organize ourselves differently.' That's a rarity that we do that. But that certainly was the key to getting the momentum that we've got going right now."
That certainly seemed the case Saturday night, when Biffle sent a statement by ripping a victory from Johnson's grasp, and sailing untouched to the finish. "I'll tell you what, catching the No. 48 car at the end, I had to dig deep," Biffle said. "It was all I had to be able to get to him. And it seemed like when I got to him, it was too easy."