Thursday, March 1, 2012

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

As the field swept under the white flag early Tuesday morning – nearly seven hours after the drivers in the 54th Daytona 500 took the green flag to begin The Greatly Delayed American Race – Greg Biffle’s mind must have been racing nearly as fast as his Ford Fusion.

What to do, what to do?

As the field takes the final green flag of the 2012 Daytona 500, Kenseth in the 17 is about to move high, pick up Biffle's 16, and drop back to the inside lane. Dale Jr. in the 88 would tag along, offering Biffle tempation. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

A decision was required, and there was not much time to make it. In the time it took to read that last sentence, Matt Kenseth, Biffle, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – cars 17, 16, and 88 - had already entered turn one, arcing toward turn two as the three cars led the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Biffle’s teammate, Kenseth, had already won the 2009 Daytona 500, the event every driver wants to win. To come close but to fall short in the 500 – that can haunt a driver for the rest of his life. Victory just might be within Biffle’s grasp, but there were serious consequences to be considered.

What if he pulled out with Jr. closed up on his tail, passed Kenseth, and won the 500? Kenseth might not be too thrilled, but team owner Jack Roush might be forgiving… But what if he pulled out, and made the pass – only to see Jr. sweep by, to claim his own first 500 win, putting a Chevrolet in victory lane at the expense of Ford? Biffle might need one of Roush’s P-51 warbirds to escape his owner’s wrath. Not a very good scenario to begin the 2012 season.

Tough choices, indeed, and now the trio had consumed the second turn, rocketing into the backstretch and toward the jet-fuel-charred turn three. Time was running out.

Down the straightaway Biffle made a slight move to his right – maybe three feet – and swung back behind Kenseth. Another swing to the right, perhaps just one foot… And that was it. Biffle was back behind the 17, his left tires maintaining a consistent distance from the yellow lines through turns three and four. Exiting four Dale had no choice but to make his move if he wanted anything other than third place. He passed Biffle but was unable to close on Kenseth before the cars hit the finish line in the tri-oval.

It was over.

Kenseth cruises, Dale Jr. makes a move for second, Biffle settles for third. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

A disappointed Earnhardt climbed from his car, runner-up in the Daytona 500.

"He's trying to do what he could do,” Earnhardt surmised of Biffle’s motives afterward. “If I were him, I can't imagine what his game plan was in his head, but if I were him, I would have tried to let me push him by and then pull down in front of Matt, and force Matt to be my pusher and then leave the 88 for the dogs."

Biffle himself put on a brave face, insisting everything had gone according to plan and he’d done all he could do.

"When I moved over, Matt just moved over real easy, and Junior is against my back bumper, so I'm trying not to wreck because he's shoving on me,” Biffle said. “And I'm like, 'I'm not going to be able to get a run at him.'"

So those are the comments for the record. What’s unknown is what would have happened if Biffle had pulled out and made the move. Would he have sailed by Kenseth, dropped in front of his teammate, leaving the 88 car in his wake, just as Jr. speculated? Or would the move have played directly into Dale’s hands, the 16 and 88 taking the 17 but leaving Jr. just enough time to pass Biffle, his benefactor? It wasn’t out of the question, especially in light of Kyle Busch’s winning pass in the Budweiser Shootout…

We’ll never know.

In Formula 1 racing, the topic of “team orders” often engenders controversy. A driver being order to hold his position or yield to his teammate has long been part of the game in a form of motorsports where glory for the team supplants individual accomplishment.

In NASCAR, teams and drivers have historically been left to police themselves. But on this early February morning, it’s within the realm of possibility that team realities trumped any potential outcomes.