Biffle a solid candidate to replace Stewart at Gibbs

Updated: May 12, 2008, 6:33 PM ET
Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Greg Biffle certainly didn't sound like a guy committed to Roush Fenway Racing when he blasted the faulty equipment that led to his last-place finish at Darlington Raceway.

"All I want is equipment to drive that stays together," said Biffle, who started from the pole and led 95 laps Saturday night before loose wheels, a bad vibration and a broken timing belt ended his race early.

"It is really frustrating, but you know what, I've just come accustomed to expecting it because week after week it's something. Something breaks. Something falls off. I give it 110 percent as a driver all the time, and you just want your equipment to last and be able to win these races."

The rant was, of course, based on frustration. He seemed to have the car to beat, but instead left the track still searching for his first win of the season.

Still, it was clear "The Biff" was sending a message with his biting remarks.

Just what might that message be? Well, signing a contract extension with Roush might not be the slam dunk both sides have led everyone to believe.

In fact, Biffle might finally be ready to test the free-agent market.

If that's indeed the case, the first place Biffle should look is Tony Stewart's seat at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Of course, that ride isn't technically open right now. Stewart is under contract through 2009, he's yet to ask to be released from his contract early and Gibbs officials have insisted they'll hold him to his deal. But it's becoming increasingly clearer that the two-time champion has some juicy offers on the table that he's taking rather seriously.

Among Stewart's options is an opportunity to purchase fledgling Haas-CNC Racing. On paper it seems a peculiar fit -- the team doesn't run up front, its sponsorship isn't unlimited and Stewart would have to overhaul the entire program -- but it sure looks like Stewart is interested.

It would be counterproductive for Gibbs to hold Stewart hostage if his heart is truly elsewhere, and there's persistent rumblings that JGR officials are scouring the market for Stewart's replacement.

Carl Edwards was the top free agent, but two weeks ago he signed an extension to stay at Roush. Team owner Jack Roush later said the team received a stiff challenge for Edwards from a competing team, which appears now to have been JGR.

Team president J.D. Gibbs refused to address claims that the team pursued Edwards. "We don't discuss driver negotiations," he repeated over and over, which hardly put the Edwards rumor to rest.

So if Gibbs officials truly are looking at a Plan B, then Biffle would be a solid choice. He works hard, wants to win and the ups and downs at Roush are the only thing that's prevented him from claiming his first Cup title.

Biffle has won a Truck Series championship and Busch Series championship driving for Roush, and he seemed to be on the cusp of Sprint Cup greatness with his breakthrough 2005 season. He won six races and finished second to Stewart in the standings that year, but the success tailed off and he's still working to climb back to the top of the series.

He's won just three races since 2005, and despite a strong start this year, he's faltered of late and dropped to 11th in the standings after Darlington. Now 38 years old, he's growing impatient and wants equipment he knows he can drive to a title.

Biffle can certainly get that at Gibbs, which has won three titles since 2000 and has a trio of legitimate contenders this season in Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. He's a smart, sophisticated veteran who is comfortable in his own skin and it's not important to him to have the spotlight this late in his career.

Before Darlington, he seemed determined to stay at Roush.

"My 100 percent intent is to work out an extension with Roush," Biffle said a week ago in Richmond. "I've sat back and thought about what else is out there. There are a lot of great teams and great opportunities out there ... but do you look at it as are they better than what I have now or how are they different than what I have now?

"I'm making my decision kind of how (Dale) Earnhardt Jr. did, and it's about winning races and championships and contending for the title and having good equipment. There are lots of teams that have that, but I feel comfortable where I'm at with Roush Fenway. I've been there 10 years and we've got great equipment."

Then that same equipment failed him Saturday night in Richmond, and Biffle sure didn't sound as convincing. Compounding the situation is that Roush officials have openly questioned why, if Biffle is so certain he wants a contract extension, he's been absent of late from the bargaining table.

Biffle's cited a busy schedule for the slow contract talks, but it's time to wonder if he maybe isn't taking a harder look at what's available across the garage. Of all the rides that could be open, Stewart's seat at Gibbs is undoubtedly the best.

And of all the drivers still on the market, Biffle is the top choice. He's considered more talented than Ryan Newman, who is available, and Martin Truex Jr., who might be available, and both drivers are continuously mentioned for other rides.

JGR has developmental driver Joey Logano in the wings, but he's not ready for a Cup ride and is likely better suited for an expansion to four teams in 2010. Biffle would be the perfect bridge and could help the team transition into its post-Stewart days.

His departure could also help solve the car-count problem for Roush, who must get down to four teams by the end of the 2009 season. Edwards re-upped, Jamie McMurray has a long-term deal, Matt Kenseth doesn't appear to be going anywhere and second-year driver David Ragan is an emerging star who cracked the top 12 after his fifth-place run at Darlington.

Someone eventually has to go, and that someone may very well be Biffle.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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