Bryan Davis Keith · Saturday September 10, 2011
The last time Stephen Leicht was seen in a Cup car was over half a decade ago, back when Leicht was rumored to be mere weeks from becoming the full-time replacement for Elliott Sadler in Robert Yates’ No. 38 car. With Sadler on the way out and young guns the flavor of the week, Leicht took the wheel of a part-time, No. 90 Ford at Pocono and raced the track en route to a 33rd-place result, seemingly nearing the peak of his development for a team hoping he’d be their driver of the future. Leicht failed to qualify for the Brickyard 400 the following week, but hope sprang eternal there’d be a Cup ride around the next corner.
Instead, a dark alley of debt lie ahead for Leicht’s owner, one of the “old guard” that fell behind the times without the sponsorship cash to keep his two-car operation afloat. Sadly, at the end of 2007 Leicht was released by the Yates camp even after scoring his first career win that year; the team, for all intents and purposes now ceases to exist.
Leicht seemed to have found a life raft in the interim, landing a part-time gig with Richard Childress Racing’s No. 29 car in the Nationwide Series, but learned firsthand one of the hardest truths in NASCAR’s modern era. Despite being only a few years removed from Kevin Harvick’s dominant 2006 Busch Series title run and the No. 29 having won the owner’s title in 2007, sponsorship became fleeting at best, and Leicht was out at RCR after only a few partial schedules.
“It’s definitely more about having a sponsor than being a talented race car driver,” reflects Leicht on the circumstances that led to his lengthy hiatus from the upper levels of NASCAR, one coming to a close this Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway – the youngster will be taking the green behind the wheel of Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 car. “It’s sad that it’s come to that.”
But money over talent is just a small part of the sport that has changed since Leicht was last seen. More important, for his purposes is brand new equipment; outside of failing to qualify start-and-park cars at Fontana and Las Vegas last season, Leicht hasn’t started a major NASCAR series race since Memphis (Nationwide) back in 2009. Since then, the CoT car has been introduced to the Nationwide ranks, and evolved dramatically in Cup. It’s an evolution Leicht has been largely absent for, meaning his learning curve is largely crunched into a two-day practice, qualifying, and race session this weekend.
“I did two tests in 2006 and two tests in 2008 when I was with Yates and Childress,” he recalled when asked how much seat time he’s actually had the new generation vehicle. “I had two tests with TBR… [but I] don’t have a lot of experience in these cars.”
“[Still,]” he continued, “it’s just another race car.”
Those two tests also proved to make the difference in getting a second chance. In a sport that’s filled to the brim with development prospects, searching left and right for any car to drive, Leicht was able to capitalize on a previous relationship to land a locked-in Cup deal.
“I knew Tommy [Baldwin] back from my days at Yates. We had a meeting about three months ago, decided to do some testing. Testing went well. It clicked,” said Leicht of the deal that saw him end up behind the wheel of the No. 36 for this race weekend. The team obviously thought the testing went more than well, along with one-race backers Pepsi Max and Golden Corral. They’re opting to give Leicht not only a Cup ride, but a ride in the team’s one locked-in car; Dave Blaney will attempt to qualify the No. 35 at the track on Friday. Just how big a deal that was isn’t lost on the driver.
“[Being locked in] certainly takes the pressure off. I don’t have to worry about making one mistake during a qualifying lap that costs us a race,” he observed. “It allows us to really focus on race runs. And that, in turn, helps our qualifying.”
Leicht will certainly take the help, as Richmond International Raceway is not a track that’s been too kind to the former short track ace; his average finish at the oval in his Nationwide Series career was a lackluster 22.5.
“I’ve always liked the track,” says Leicht when asked about his mediocre career results. “With Yates, we didn’t have great cars there, never had the setup. [Fortunately,] TBR has an excellent short track program.”
TBR’s prowess showed through at the first RIR race earlier this season, with regular driver Dave Blaney coming home 13th in the early stages of TBR having secured their sponsorship package with Golden Corral. The circumstances are a bit more challenging this time around, though, as this Saturday’s race will also set the Chase field. As Tony Stewart’s stinging comments during media availability demonstrated on Friday, both pressure and tension are extremely high for the Cup field heading into the evening.
“The Chase makes it tough,” Leicht admitted of his first race in years. “You have to pay attention to who you’re racing and be respectful of that. [Also], you have to look out for yourself and push hard.”
“It definitely enters your mind.”
The future remains uncertain for Leicht, as 2012 has yielded no concrete plans for the driver. “I’m working with TBR, and the goal is full-time Cup racing,” is all Leicht had for comment on the matter.
What is certain is the Chase will be center stage under Richmond’s lights on Saturday. But those dozen or so drivers won’t be the only ones actually racing for something.
Just ask Stephen Leicht.
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