BROOKLYN, Mich. - It was a patriotic kind of day. The U.S. Army band played "God Bless the USA," a quartet of F-16s screamed overhead, and four Blackhawk helicopters swooped low across the race track.
It seemed appropriate that Greg Biffle, driving the Army National Guard car, survived yesterday to win a race mixed with conflict at Michigan International Speedway.
"I'm so excited for the soldiers over in Iraq watching this - this is for all of those guys," Biffle said. "It is just such a thrill to get the National Guard car into victory lane. Those guys overseas - they watch the races and follow NASCAR and they deserve to see their car win. This is something to really lift their spirits."
Biffle, who started 24th, had charged up to fourth place after just 20 laps, and was second 10 laps later. He was trying to run down leader Mark Martin through the middle portion of the race, and finally took the lead from Elliott Sadler on lap 104.
"My car was really, really fast right when the green flag fell," Biffle said. "It didn't take me long to move up through the pack. We had radio problems and got off a little bit, but once we worked that out, we were back in the race."
Jeff Gordon swiped the lead from teammate Jimmie Johnson on the opening lap and maintained it for the first 38 laps. Gordon, who finished seventh and took over the Nextel Cup Series points lead after Johnson blew an engine and was done for the day after 83 laps, faded after losing the lead to Kurt Busch.
"They all seemed to get better and we seemed to get worse," Gordon said. "We have to figure out what's going on with the engines. Mine didn't feel great there for the last 60 or 70 laps. We certainly had some concerns."
As the caution periods continued to disrupt the continuity of the race -there were a record nine yellow flags - Biffle kept charging.
"I was bringing in Gordon at four-tenths of a second per lap. That's pretty daggoned fast," Biffle said.
An incident in the pits gave Biffle the opportunity he needed to get out front, essentially for good.
Martin dominated the heart of the race and was leading Biffle on lap 129 when the caution came out again after Elliott Sadler blew a tire and shredded a front fender. The leaders went to the pits, and when Martin was penalized for leaving without a lug nut and dropped to 28th, Biffle surged back to the lead and kept it most of the rest of the race, including the final 18 laps.
Ironically, his main challenger at the end was Martin, who worked all the way back to second place with 10 laps to go. However, a series of green-flag pit stops with 25 laps left probably sealed Martin's fate.
Biffle took fuel and four tires, while Martin decided to get fuel and just two tires, hoping to close the time gap with Biffle and then catch him when caution came again.
"We were praying for a miracle," said Martin, who was eight seconds behind Biffle at that point. 'We rolled the dice and took a chance, because it seemed like there was a caution every five laps, but just when we could have used one, we didn't get it."
"There was lots of racing out there all day long," Biffle said. "I saw Mark Martin behind me and you never know what he has up his sleeve. He's always an aggressive driver, but I figured I had him. When he took just two tires, I thought that was probably it."
Martin, battling to stay in contention for The Chase from 12th place, said he did not expect to catch Biffle without some help. He also refused to enter the fray over the pit stop mishap.
"I'm just disappointed we didn't make him work for it more, that's all," Martin said.
Dale Jarrett was third in the race and remains 14th in points, needing a big surge to make the 10-race playoff.
After the next three races, the top 10 in the points race will race for the title over the final 10 races of the season.
"We can't try any harder -we're doing everything we possibly can," Jarrett said. "I think we have a lot of momentum going, and if we get in, we can be a lot more dangerous in a 10-race shootout."
Biffle, whose only other win came in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona last year, stands 18th in the points race and the Vancouver, Wash., native has little hope of making the field for the chase for the Nextel Cup championship.
"I didn't make any mistakes today," Biffle said, "which is pretty amazing for me.
"Things have been tough at times this season, but this was a great day for us.
"I'm sharing this with all of those guys in Iraq who are part of the National Guard team. This is their victory, too."
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.42.11068 -84.24795