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OVER THE first 26 races of the 2008 season, Greg Biffle was little more than an afterthought in the Sprint Cup Series, a driver so far off everyone's radar that he could stroll through the garage in his street clothes and go largely unrecognized by fans.
After all, he failed to win a race and had seven finishes of 20th or worse. Though he did make the Chase, he—like virtually every other driver—got lost in the shadow of the regular season's Big Three: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson. Yet on Sunday before the Camping World RV 400 at Kansas Speedway, there was Biffle in front of his car on pit road, surrounded by three television cameras, receiving high fives and thumbs-up from rival drivers, owners, even NASCAR officials. He commanded everyone's attention, which is what happens when you come out of nowhere as the surprise of the Chase.
After winning the first two Chase races, in Loudon, N.H., and Dover, Del., the 39-year-old Biffle continued his unlikely rise to title contender in Kansas. He ran in the top 10 for most of the race and passed Jeff Gordon on the final lap to finish third. Once again, though, Johnson and Edwards were hogging the spotlight just ahead, as Johnson held off a hard-charging Edwards for the win. Johnson's fifth victory of the season gave him a 10-point lead over Edwards in the standings, with Biffle 20 points further back.
"It's a little discouraging to finish third and be behind the two guys I'm chasing," Biffle said. "But I like our chances. There's not a single track coming up where I don't think we can win."
Biffle's relatively quiet regular season (he wound up eighth in points) was somewhat by design. Unlike many teams, Biffle and his crew chief Greg Erwin spent the majority of their midweek test sessions preparing not for upcoming regular-season races but for tracks the circuit visits during the Chase. This cost the team in the short term but is proving a boon in the long term. "We are so much smarter the way we test now," Erwin says. "Everything is about getting ready for the Chase and performing when it matters."
The schedule sets up well for Biffle. Four of the last seven tracks are 1.5-mile ovals—the type of layout on which Biffle has a series-high four top five finishes in his last five starts. What's his secret? Growing up in Vancouver, Wash., Biffle cut his racing teeth on half-mile concrete ovals, on which speeds hit triple digits. Most NASCAR drivers learn how to race on either dirt or quarter-mile tracks, where the speeds are far slower. "You go fast at these 1.5-mile tracks [upward of 190 mph], and you don't have much room to operate," Biffle says, "but I've been dealing with those conditions all my life, which is why I love these 1.5-milers."
Biffle's average finish in the Chase, heading into this week's race at Talladega, is 1.7. He may not yet be the favorite to win the Cup, given how strongly Johnson and Edwards continue to run, but—even as Kyle Busch has faded from contention (box)—Biffle is making sure the Chase still has a Big Three.
ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.