The last time Greg Biffle visited Richmond International Raceway for a race weekend, he was all smiles.
It wasn't just that Biffle was taking an active part in a program to help disadvantaged children receive free dental care, although that certainly helped. The smiles also came easily for Biffle then, back in April, because he was leading the Sprint Cup Series in points and was coming off his first win of 2012 at Texas only two weeks earlier.
He warned then that it was a long season, that he expected some bumps along the way. He made another prediction then that he repeated Sunday after finally returning to Victory Lane at Michigan International Speedway.
Biffle expects to be there at the end this season, competing hard for a championship at the close of the Chase for the Sprint Cup in November at Miami-Homestead Speedway, the final race of the year. He insisted that his win Sunday underscored that and that anyone who overlooks him and his team might very well come to regret it.
"I know that a lot of people don't expect us to win the championship and don't expect us to compete for the title, but I don't care what they say or who they want to talk about or what they want to talk about," Biffle told reporters in the media center after the race. "We will be a factor when it comes down to Homestead. I promise you that."
Some will look at Biffle's latest win as a gift from the racing gods, received only because five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson's engine failed as it appeared he was motoring to what would have been his series-high fourth win of the season. But Biffle said he looks at it more as his team taking advantage of an opportunity, and he's right. The No. 16 team put itself in position to gain the most from Johnson's late misfortune.
Video:Heartbreak for Johnson at Michigan
Plus, Biffle thought he was running Johnson down in the waning laps of the race and very well might have caught him. Optimistic? Yes. The necessary thinking of someone who believes he has a championship run in him? No doubt.
"We were able to close in on the 48 [of Johnson] there on the end," Biffle said. "I moved my line around in [Turns] 3 and 4 and moved up getting in the corner and drove it into the corner a lot further than I had been. And it held, and I could go to the gas early. That was the only end he was beating me on, and I got it turned around and was catching him, and then he had the engine failure.
"It was going to be a great race [to the finish], no matter what. I felt like I could catch him, but we will never know. Passing him might have been a different story, but I certainly think with seven to go I could have probably pulled up close to him and at least made it interesting."
It got interesting anyway when Johnson's blown engine just five laps from the scheduled finish laid some oil on the track and brought out the caution, forcing Biffle to survive one final restart and a green-white-checkered finish.
Video:Final Laps | Victory Lane | Post-Race Reactions
Biffle said he wasn't about to make the same kind of mistakes as a driver that he thought he made on the final lap a week earlier at Watkins Glen, where he finished sixth but said he went home "kicking rocks" because he thought he should have finished higher.
"I was disappointed with myself," Biffle said. "I left that race track without the points lead, and it was totally my fault. I gave up two positions on the last lap at Watkins Glen and handed the point lead to the 48 car. That went under the radar. Nobody said a word about it. Nobody mentioned it or knew about it except me because I was driving the car and knew I gave up those two spots and was one point behind the 48 coming here [to Michigan]."
He left 28 points ahead of Johnson, who fell to fourth after the late engine failure relegated him to a 27th-place finish. Biffle is 20 points ahead of Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth and 22 ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The big (Chase) picture
Biffle's win was important not because he took the points lead but because, with only three races left before the cutoff that determines the 12 Chase participants, it earned Biffle 10 bonus points. The Chase qualifiers who are in the top 10 in points after the final Richmond race on Sept. 8 will receive 10 bonus points for each win they've registered during the first 26 races, but otherwise, the points board will be cleared for the final 10 Chase races.
That renders Biffle taking the points lead from Johnson almost meaningless, except as a point of pride and because Johnson thought he had his fourth win, and all the bonus points that would have come with it, in the bag. It also brings Biffle's season full circle. He was the points leader for an 11-week stretch that began after three consecutive third-place finishes to start the long season and was solidified by the win at Texas in the seventh race.
This time, Biffle and car owner Jack Roush want to hang around at the top for a while longer -- like all the way through the upcoming Chase.
"There are rhythms that go through this thing," Roush said after Sunday's race. "There was the year we won nine races with Mark [Martin] and another year we won eight or nine race with Carl [Edwards]. We weren't probably good enough to deserve all that, but we've had many other years we haven't won many times or as often as we should have.
"You have to suffer through the rough times to enjoy the good times. We are due to have a good run, and hopefully it will be in the Chase with one of the Roush Fenway drivers. I never really lost faith in the organization or in myself or the engines we have or the hardware we have built. It is the best we can do, and it is good enough."
Biffle insisted he is ready, as he was at Michigan, to take advantage of the opportunity.
"I pay attention to what we need to do as a team, [how we need to] not make mistakes and do what it is going to take to win this championship," Biffle said. "If it's not a story and [those in the media] don't cover it now, then that is fine. But they will be forced to after Homestead."
Strong words, indeed. Biffle obviously intends to do everything in his power to back them up.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Greg Biffle