HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- When Greg Biffle won the pole position for the season-opening Daytona 500, the smiles were on the house.
The No. 16 Roush Racing team was free to talk of optimism and confidence. No one could dampen Biffle's spirits and insistence that the team would improve on last season's 20th-place finish.
A little more than nine months later, Biffle is ranked 21st and just watched one shot for his team to close the season with a bang go up in smoke.
Biffle ran a 179.307 mph lap around the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway on Friday. When he laid it down, it was the fastest lap on the board.
"The car was just perfect," beamed Biffle. "It went down in the corner and the car rotated just right. I went for the throttle and it was just a little bit free and I just kind of drove the race car. The guys just did a great job with it. It's our best Ford Taurus body that we have and it's our best chassis."
As Biffle spoke, he held the top spot on the lap charts. But there were several threats to a possible pole-winning effort left to qualify.
He watched nervously as Jamie McMurray, last season's pole sitter, went out.
McMurray lost some time from practice and qualified 18th.
Biffle's heart beat fast as "Rocketman" Ryan Newman, owner of nine pole positions this year alone, went out on the track.
Alas, once more he was safe -- barely, with Newman qualifying third best.
Through 54 of 55 qualifiers, Biffle's pole was safe. Until an unlikely speedster clipped him from his perch.
Kurt Busch, carrying the weight of an 18-point lead in the title chase, didn't give any signs that he was ready to win a pole. He wasn't particularly fast in testing here earlier in the season; his fastest practice lap on Friday was still only 14th best. And though he does have a couple poles to his credit, he is not widely regarded as a strong qualifier.
But Busch defied the odds with a run of 179.319 mph, putting him on the pole for the most important race of his young career. Busch's Roush Racing teammate, meanwhile, was taken off the headlines.
"Yeah, I thought we might be safe there," Biffle said. "It was still a good lap, and I'm happy for my teammate."
Even Busch showed surprise over his feat.
"Is this Firday?" Busch asked, referring to the day Cup drivers traditionally qualify. "I never knew we could do things like this on Friday."
There was no evidence of crush in Biffle's voice. The second-year driver has a full plate this weekend as he finished eighth in the Craftsman Truck Series event on Friday and will race in the Busch race on Saturday.
He took being bumped from the Cup pole in stride.
"I may not be on the pole, but I'm going to be in the first two rows and that's what counts," Biffle said. "I'm excited. I've got a really good car for Sunday. I'm pretty busy this weekend, so it's a good way to start on Sunday."
Especially given the history of the car he brought to Miami. Biffle notched his lone victory of the season, at Michigan International Speedway, driving this car. He also piloted this rig to a third-place finish at Kansas Speedway.
He said one more finish like that would do tremendous things for his team's confidence over the off-season.
Even before qualifying, the No. 16 team emphasized the importance of having a strong showing this weekend. Although Biffle did grab that Daytona pole and did win one Michigan race, the majority of the 2004 campaign was not one for the books.
Biffle has had nine finishes of 30th or worse and has failed to finish five times.
Meanwhile, he had to watch as Busch had a magical run through the first nine races of the 10-race shootout, putting him a win away from the Nextel Cup title. Busch and Biffle are both from the West -- Busch from Nevada and Biffle from Washington.
The two saw each other compete in regional circuits and were competitors in the Truck Series in 2000, with Biffle winning the title and Busch coming in second.
Biffle said it's been a joy to watch his teammate and friend perform so well, but that it didn't make his lowly perch this year any easier.
But crew chief Doug Richert says the gains made by the No. 16 team internally, though not evident on the stat sheets, have given them reason to believe in a much improved 2005. And while Busch, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth are getting most of the attention devoted to the Roush stable, there's no reason to believe that Biffle won't steal some of that next year.
All he wants is a strong finish on Sunday to prove it to the world.
"I'm very happy with the way this team has developed over the 2004 season," he said. "We've had a very good second half and we're looking forward to the 2005 season. We've started building cars for Daytona and the downforce tracks with the new spoiler configuration. Our confidence is high heading into next year."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.