For months, the Winston Cup series has been in search of a team or driver capable of ending the dominance of Dale Earnhardt Inc. at superspeedways.
Greg Biffle's name never came up.
But Biffle, a rookie, pulled off a major upset, besting the powerful DEI cars of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip by turning the Pepsi 400 into a fuel-mileage race Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.
It was his first career win in 23 starts.
"It's unbelievable," said Biffle, who started 30th in Roush Racing's No. 16 Ford. "It's really exciting to be in Victory Lane at Daytona. I never in the world would have thought we would win a race here."
Jeff Burton, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte and Bobby Labonte completed the top five, all benefactors of fuel strategy. Earnhardt was seventh and Waltrip 11th. Points leader Matt Kenseth was sixth, stretching his lead to 180 over Earnhardt.
Earnhardt and Waltrip had combined to win eight of the previous 10 races at Daytona and Talladega, tracks where restrictor plates are used to keep speeds from topping 200 mph. Waltrip, winner of the season-opening Daytona 500, was attempting to join Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to win three straight at the 2.5-mile track.
Earnhardt and Waltrip appeared in control halfway into the 160-lap race. Though Kevin Harvick led the first 37 laps in the No. 29 Chevrolet, Earnhardt and Waltrip were first and second, nose to tail and virtually impossible to split up.
Strategy did the trick.
"Congratulations to Greg Biffle _ man, what a great place to get your first victory," said Earnhardt, who led 43 laps in the No. 8 Chevrolet. "We did all we could but we wound up a little short."
On fuel, that is.
Fuel strategy is among the most complicated of scenarios by which a Winston Cup race can be decided. Though Earnhardt, Waltrip and Kevin Harvick _ who led a race-high 54 laps _ appeared to have the strongest cars, several things conspired against them.
On Lap 74, a flat tire caused Kurt Busch to spin on the backstretch, collecting six others and bringing out a caution. Because everyone had been to pit road barely 10 laps earlier, most of the leaders elected not to pit again and risk losing track position.
Cars toward the back of the field not only pitted, but a handful _ including Biffle and Bobby Labonte _ came back just before the green flag to top off their fuel tanks. It was a risk they could take because they had little to lose.
Not so for the DEI cars.
"It was easy for (those cars) to pit because they were running 25th when they pitted," said Richard "Slugger" Labbe, Waltrip's crew chief. "We were running second and we would have been a lap short (on fuel). If we were running 20th, being a lap short would have been okay, but the decision for them was real easy. You win some and you lose some that way."
From there, Biffle, Burton, Rudd and the Labonte brothers could make it the rest of the way with one pit stop while the rest of the field required two. But for the strategy to work, they needed the final 83 laps to be caution free.
Everyone made it through a cycle of green-flag pit stops with Bobby Labonte in the lead. With 21 laps left, Biffle took the lead and crossed his fingers. In the tense final laps, as most cars peeled off the track for the splash of gas they needed to reach the finish, Biffle saw Bobby Labonte closing on his rear bumper.
With one lap to go, Labonte pulled to the outside of Biffle and appeared to make a run at rookie heading into Turn 1. But Labonte's No. 18 Chevrolet sputtered and ran out of fuel.
Labonte coasted across the finish line.
"I knew we were probably pretty close," Labonte said. "We had to go for it."
After Labonte's car ran dry, Biffle celebrated.
"What a relief," said Biffle, the 2002 Busch Series champion who finished 21st in the season-opening Daytona 500, his only other Cup race at DIS. "I haven't been racing these restrictor plates for very long. I thought when Bobby got to my bumper that I'd learn a lesson and finish second. It doesn't feel like it was a fuel-mileage race to me. I thought what we did made sense."
With five laps left, the hood from Robby Gordon's Chevrolet flew into the frontstretch stands. An injured woman was taken to nearby Halifax Medical Center to be treated, speedway officials said. She waved to the crowd to signal she was okay, the Associated Press reported.
Greg Biffle celebrates after earning his first Winston Cup victory in his 23rd start at the Pepsi 400. The 2002 Busch Series champion led only the final 21 laps.
Kurt Busch spins in front of Robby Gordon (31), Steve Park (30) and Jeff Burton during a wreck on Lap 74. Busch's right rear tire went down, starting the incident.
Pit crews listen to Sara Evans' rendition of the national anthem at Daytona International Speedway.