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NASCAR: Can Anybody Catch Greg Biffle?

Through the first seven races of the Sprint Cup season, Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle leads the point standings. US Race Report’s Chris Leone breaks down Biffle’s hot start and predicts more strong finishes in the upcoming weeks.

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NASCAR Season Preview: Carl Edwards

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#99 Fastenal/Aflac/Subway/Best Buy/Kellogg’s/Cheez-It/UPS Ford, Roush Fenway Racing

Born: August 15, 1979

Home: Columbia, Missouri

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Making the Chase was no problem for Edwards, who spent a total of four races ranked below third in points and was never out of Chase contention in points, even in the early stages of the season where points are shuffled around. Then, when he got there, he had the best Chase average in history, an eye-popping 4.9, partially buoyed by three consecutive second place finishes to finish the year. When all was said and done, he was tied for the points lead with Tony Stewart, the only time that has ever happened in Sprint Cup history.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: And yet it wasn’t enough. Because Stewart won five races in the Chase and Edwards only won one all season, he took the tiebreaker. Edwards won the pole and led the most laps in the season finale at Homestead, but if Stewart won the race, it wouldn’t matter. That’s exactly what happened. “That’s all I had,” Edwards lamented after the race.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Anybody who hates the trend of former full-time sponsors combining to back one team and subsequent related collapse of the racing die-cast market should probably view this team as Public Enemy Number One. After Roush Fenway Racing signed Aflac to a $26 million (annually!) contract to sponsor Edwards, the company had to auction off plenty of races to other companies. That wasn’t a difficult sell, as Edwards is a top-flight driver with a generally well-received personality, but many of those who are now footing the bill used to pour much more money into the sport. This year, the team will add UPS (which shifts its money from Edwards’ former teammate David Ragan) and Best Buy (which backed A.J. Allmendinger full-time at Richard Petty Motorsports last year).

But all the money in the world may not be enough to buck the Edwards trend of following up a good season with a relative stinker. After Edwards won nine races and scored 27 top 10s in 2008 and still lost the championship, he followed it up with a winless 2009 and 11th place points finish. Edwards took a page out of teammate Matt Kenseth’s book last season by winning only one race but posting an average finish that was actually better than in 2008; he still lost the title to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker. He’s still never missed the Chase as a a full-time driver, and don’t expect that to start now, but as Denny Hamlin showed last year (and Edwards showed in 2009), it’s hard to keep performing at a high level after losing the Chase in such a heartbreaking fashion. Winning the pole for the Daytona 500 will help, but can he stay on top all season?

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Matt Kenseth

Photo credit: Kim Phillips (CC)

#17 Best Buy/Valvoline Ford, Roush Fenway Racing

Born: March 10, 1972

Home: Cambridge, Wisconsin

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: After the birth of his second child at the start of the season, Kenseth put together his best season since 2007, winning three races and three poles (nearly doubling his career total in that statistic) to finish fourth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He also cracked 20 top 10 finishes for the fifth time in his career.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Kenseth usually had bad luck immediately after a stroke of good luck. Much of the momentum Kenseth accrued at Texas in April after snapping a two-year winless streak was sucked out after a crash the next weekend at Talladega. The Texas win had catapulted him from ninth to third in points; the crash set him back to eighth. Finishing 21st at Chicago in the first race of the Chase started him off at 10th in points; after working his way up to second at Talladega, a 31st place finish at Martinsville the next week knocked him back to fifth.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Recently, Kenseth has established a pattern of following up a winning season with a winless one, and the winless seasons have both occurred on even-numbered years. Take out of that what you will, but worry more about the piecemeal sponsorship program funding this team; Best Buy has signed on for only nine races, while the Valvoline sponsorship (good for a single Sprint Cup race for Roush Fenway Racing last year) is undetermined.

If anything will kill the momentum of this team, it will probably be that. Team owner Jack Roush has committed to run the driver that gave him his first Cup championship for the full season come hell or high weather, but you have to wonder when and if the money pit will run dry. Times are tough in the sport, a fact to which Roush can attest, after having to shutter the iconic #6 car for all but the Daytona 500. There aren’t many indications that this season will work out for Kenseth as it did for Jeff Burton in 2004 (i.e., with Kenseth joining another team with a funded but struggling ride), but there are plenty of signs pointing to a lot of different paint schemes for this car in 2012.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Greg Biffle

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#16 3M Ford, Roush Fenway Racing

Born: December 23, 1969

Home: Vancouver, Washington

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: With three poles on the season (at the second Michigan, Kansas, and Texas races), Biffle set a new personal best in 2011. He also led more than 10 laps in seven different races, including a total of 154 laps over both Michigan races, on the way to a 16th place finish in points.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Biffle had his worst season in four years, breaking a three-year streak of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He had only three top five finishes, his worst mark since his rookie season in 2003, and went winless for only the second time in his career.

SEASON OUTLOOK: After Carl Edwards put together the most consistent Chase in the format’s history and Matt Kenseth rode early season victories to a solid points finish, Biffle became the apparent third rung on the Roush Fenway Racing ladder by the end of 2011. Though he and Matt Puccia (who replaced Greg Erwin in July) began to put together some solid end of season runs, they didn’t have enough momentum or chemistry to find a back way into the Chase, and so ended Biffle’s streak of championship-eligible seasons at three.

As for Biffle’s 2012 prognosis, do recall the famously unpredictable career trajectories of modern Roush drivers. Edwards has only won a total of three races since scoring nine victories in 2008; he didn’t win at all in 2009, finishing 11th in points. Kenseth has also suffered two winless seasons in the past four years, in 2008 and 2010, but has finished fifth and fourth in the past two Chases. The only thing that seems consistent is that no Roush driver (save for clear-cut number four David Ragan, who hasn’t been competitive since nearly making the 2008 Chase and was dumped due to lack of sponsorship this offseason) has two bad years in a row, so look for Biffle to rebound in 2012.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Photo credit: Ted Van Pelt (CC-BY)

#6 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing

Born: October 2, 1987

Home: Olive Branch, Mississippi

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: At the Nationwide level, Stenhouse posted one of the most consistent seasons in recent NASCAR memory, scoring two wins (both at Iowa) and 26 top 10s (including nine consecutive to close out the season) in 34 starts for a remarkable 8.8 average finish. His efforts were rewarded with a Nationwide Series championship and Daytona 500 ride with Roush Fenway Racing. He also made his Sprint Cup debut in the Coca-Cola 600 for the Wood Brothers, starting ninth and finishing 11th.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: The only bummer for Stenhouse in 2011 was an uncertain future, foreshadowed by a handful of unsponsored races. Now that 2011 is in the past, that uncertainty was the defining trait of Stenhouse’s offseason, and continues as Daytona inches ever closer.

SEASON OUTLOOK: You would think that, after winning the Nationwide Series title with a season as solid as Stenhouse’s, he would receive some serious consideration for a full-time Sprint Cup ride with Roush Fenway Racing or the Wood Brothers. At the very least, you would expect to see Stenhouse’s Nationwide team return to run for a second consecutive title in that series. And yet, on both counts, you would be wrong. Beyond running the Daytona 500 in the #6 car that Mark Martin made famous, Stenhouse’s 2012 plans aren’t set at all; Roush Fenway Racing, a pioneer in signing multiple companies to sponsor the same car, has been bitten by its own success, as most of their sponsors are shifting their money to Carl Edwards.

Meanwhile, Stenhouse, who has the potential to become one of the strongest rookie of the year candidates that Sprint Cup has seen in years, may sit on the sidelines for much of the season. Jack Roush ran Stenhouse for the full Nationwide schedule in 2012 despite only having about half of the races sponsored. He’s done it at the Sprint Cup level before, too, but even with the owners’ points to run the first five races guaranteed, the money just isn’t there like it used to be. In fact, the team laid off about 100 workers in the offseason as it prepares to run only three full-time Sprint Cup cars for the first time since 1997. It’s hard to be optimistic for Stenhouse when he seems most likely to face the chopping block.

– Chris Leone

UPDATE: Though nothing has been officially announced yet, Jack Roush himself appeared on Claire B. Lang’s XM Satellite Radio show, “Dialed In,” last night to say that Stenhouse will run the full Nationwide Series campaign and step into Sprint Cup when and if a replacement primary sponsor for the #6 is found.