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But for a lug nut, title was Biffle's

It hovers there just above Greg Biffle's head, like a thought balloon.

Yellow-painted, but chipped, spinning rapidly - or is that wobbling? - like that day last November at Texas Motor Speedway. As much as Biffle tries to keep off the topic of that nagging little lug nut, his conversation often wanders back to it unprovoked.

It's always right there.

Biffle was leading early in the third-to-last Chase for the Championship race in a car that was becoming increasingly dominant. He had entered the weekend third in points but anticipating a burst at a track where he had won in the spring.

But after the first pit stop he felt a vibration. Several hectic exchanges with crew chief Doug Richert led to the discovery that lug nuts had been improperly air-wrenched onto a tire. If he continued much farther, the tire could come off, producing a points disaster that would almost certainly destroy any hopes of becoming the first to win championships in NASCAR's top three series.

"Anytime they say "I got a wheel loose,' it's a sick feeling," Richert said, "because Greg's good enough that he knows what a loose wheel is, and if he said it's loose, you sure can't endanger him just leaving him out there and saying, "Oh no it's not.' "

Richert had confirmed their worst fears on his own. He had polled the crew from the pit box, demanding they reconstruct the last stop in their heads. Then a tape made of every stop was replayed, revealing that not only had rear tire changer Joe Slingerland left one nut loose as the jack fell, but another was simply hanging on. Four lug nuts will hold on a tire. Three will not.

Biffle pitted and needed more than 200 laps to return to the lead lap, finishing 20th. Tony Stewart finished the race sixth and pulled 47 more points ahead of Biffle leaving Fort Worth. Despite finishing second the next week at Phoenix and winning the season finale at Homestead, Biffle ended the season tied for second place, just 35 points behind Stewart.

"We can say that was the turning point," Richert said. "You can have two or three other things that were downfalls and did the thing, too. But that's the one that probably stood out the most. That was an obvious top-five finish that we let go. I'm trying to forget that."

Slingerland still holds the same job for Biffle. Richert can accept that humans make mistakes under extreme duress, and besides, "If (a replacement) is not on a team he's probably not better than what I got."

It was hard for Biffle to accept that a $1 part might have cost him a title. But he keeps telling himself to move on.

"Oh, it did cost me a shot," Biffle said. "You go on to the next year, you know? There's nothing I can do to fix it. So all I can do is next year. And I'm that way when you get in a wreck in the race car or something, it's like, what do you do? Next race, that's all you can do. Don't worry about who did it, who caused it, how it happened, what would have happened. You have to go on. You can't change the past."

But you can sure rehash it. Biffle finds himself doing that constantly, not just over the lug nut, but the myriad of other scenarios that did and did not go in his favor.

"What if I didn't get involved in the restrictor plate wreck at Talladega?" he pondered of a Chase-worst 27th-place finish. "What if Tony (Stewart) wouldn't have spun out and wrecked at Charlotte; he was running decent. There are a lot of "what ifs' in there, but we were leading the race at Texas. We weren't just running wherever. We were leading and had that problem, so that makes it worse. That makes it pretty clear that all I needed to do was finish 10th at Texas and it would have secured the title for me, and for us to finish 10th there would have been pretty easy I think. So, yeah, I thought about it several times, but I look forward to this year to try it again."

Biffle, who won the truck series title in 2000 and the Busch crown in 2002, finds consolation in that more title chances are expected of him. He is part of a Roush Racing team that placed all five drivers in the 10-driver Chase for the Championship last season and has won 43 races since 2000.

After winning two races and finishing 17th in points in 2004, Biffle won a series-best six times in 2005, five of the first 15. He thrived on the 1.5-mile circuits that dominate the Nextel Cup schedule - winning at Fontana, Calif., Texas, Michigan and Homestead - and showing his versatility by winning on the shorter tracks at Dover and Darlington.

That said, Biffle has to resist the urge to overlook the first 26 races and cut to the Chase.

"I want to do the last 10," he said. "It's nerve-wracking. I'm thinking about it now. What if we get involved in a wreck, or what if we have something happen? The window is very small for the margin of error in that 10 races - whether it's mechanical, a tire issue, anything. The guy who has the least amount of trouble is the guy that's going to win."

Every lug nut counts.

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