FONTANA, Calif. - No matter how hard his pit crew tried to give it away Sunday, Greg Biffle refused to lose the Auto Club 500.
He dominated early and dropped to the middle of the pack following three slow pit stops, only to rally late by skipping a final pit stop - and more trouble on pit road - to take the title in the second Nextel Cup series event of the season.
Biffle led 23 of the first 26 laps, then the final 23. In between, he played catch-up.
A final round of pit stops came with 32 laps to go when Michael Waltrip blew an engine. Some of the leaders stopped for four new tires; some stopped for two; and some, including Biffle, didn't stop at all.
By staying on the track, Biffle moved to fourth place for the restart with 30 laps remaining. It took seven laps to finally get out front, and from there he built a big enough lead to hold off an expected charge from those with newer tires. The plan worked to perfection when he finished a car length ahead of Jimmie Johnson and his four new tires.
"If I had another lap, I might have been able to get under Greg," Johnson said. "You can't believe how loose Greg was in those last three laps. He did a great job holding on. He brushed the wall there in (Turn) 2; you could smell it."
Kurt Busch, who also skipped the final stop, was passed by Johnson on the final lap to finish third.
After leading 23 consecutive laps early in the race - once by more than 100 yards - Biffle fell back to eighth place during his first pit stop. He got back up to sixth when he made his next pit stop. He came out in 14th place. And when he stopped a third time, he was 27th.
"This was the toughest one of my life to earn," Biffle said. "We overcame more today than I ever have in a race car."
That stop actually put Biffle a lap down, but he managed to race his way back onto the lead lap midway into the race. From there, he started a methodical march to the front.
Biffle also closed out the 2004 season with a victory at Homestead, Fla.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joe Cavaretta/associated pressGreg Biffle celebrates his win in the NASCAR Auto Club 500. Biffle led the final 23 laps, just holding off Jimmie Johnson.
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