PORTLAND — The line of people kept moving, but it seemingly never got any shorter for those first 90 minutes.
Greg Biffle can still draw a crowd.
The NASCAR driver from Southwest Washington is not your typical celebrity.
Rather than show up late to his autograph session Wednesday at Portland International Raceway, he showed up early — and went right to work.
“We were going to hang out, but there already was a line of people,” Biffle said.
He was there as part of Beaches Summertime Crusin’s, hanging out at the Baxter Auto Parts booth. He signed Baxter hats and handed them out to his fans, but he also signed whatever they brought him: Shirts, hats, pictures, replica cars, even a cast on an arm.
He took time to talk with each fan as well, even if it was a short conversation.
“I really, really love the Northwest,” Biffle said after he signed for two hours, 20 minutes without a break. “This time of year is gorgeous, beautiful.”
This is also a time for a break from the series. The Sprint Cup drivers are off this weekend, set to return at the end of July at the famed Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis. Even though he is a new dad of two weeks, Biffle still wanted to return to the region to say hello to family and old friends, and check out the track he co-owns — the Sunset Speedway in Banks, Ore.
He was heading there this weekend.
But first, a quick stop with hundreds of his closest friends at PIR.
“He’s my hero. He’s my idol,” said 11-year-old James Senter of Portland, who claims he has been a Biffle fan “since the day of my birth.”
Senter also gave Biffle a prediction.
“I told him, ‘If you can win one race before The Chase, I just know you’re going to win three in a row.’”
Biffle smiled. He liked that idea. A lot.
Morgan Payne of Portland is 25 now. He asked for Biffle’s signature on a photograph of Payne when he was 8 or 9 years old at Portland Speedway, sitting in Biffle’s car, with Biffle standing nearby, sporting a scruffy beard.
Then there was Charlene Huddleston of Camas and Tonya Hansen of Amboy who gave Biffle gifts for his daughter, two-week-old Emma Elizabeth Biffle.
There was a dress, a teddy bear, and two knitted hats.
“We just had to get the baby something,” Huddleston said.
There were also gifts for the new mom, Greg’s wife, Nicole.
The gifts, and the sentiment behind them, were appreciated by the driver.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of these meet-and-greets is how many fans ask Biffle if he remembers them, if they know so-and-so.
So, Greg, do you really know everybody?
“Shoot,” he said. “Everybody knows me!”
He did not sound full of himself; more like he couldn’t believe so many want to know him.
“It’s all kind of foggy. You remember a lot of people, a lot of faces, but you don’t always remember the circumstances and the where,” he said. “We meet a thousand people every weekend. We see a lot of faces.”
Still, when he comes to the Northwest, he really does know a lot of people — fans who watched him race at the old Portland Speedway, those who knew him and his family growing up in east Vancouver.
That’s why he loves coming back, giving back to his local fans.
Those fans really want to see him win again — and soon.
Biffle said he and his team are working on it. That team includes a new crew chief, Matt Puccia.
“Our focus is to make The Chase,” Biffle said. “It was pretty obvious we weren’t going to make The Chase if we didn’t change something. The mojo wasn’t going our way. Our new guy, I think he’s going to do a great job.”
Biffle called the 2011 season “frustrating,” adding that trouble with fuel mileage has cost him three or four wins. The struggles also have him currently sitting out of The Chase, in 14th place.
“We want to win. We will win this year,” he said. “That’s without a doubt. We are so close.”
Even when it is frustrating, now he can come home to a baby daughter.
“It’s been an experience so far,” he said. “The whole thing, from before she was born, and then when she was born, and now, it’s something pretty special to go through.”