Kevin Rutherford · Friday June 14, 2013
Jason Leffler may have been an accomplished USAC Midget driver whose dominance in the late ’90s put his name on the map, but in NASCAR, Leffler’s main accomplishments came in the Nationwide Series.
The Long Beach native, who died Wednesday evening (June 12) at age 37 from a sprint car accident, first made his NASCAR presence known in 1999, running four races in what was then the Busch Series for Joe Gibbs Racing. He was touted as a potential future star, coming from a similar background as had Tony Stewart, Gibbs’s most recent success.
Of course, Leffler’s initial Busch run, and subsequent Cup rookie campaign for Chip Ganassi, didn’t produce much of note, and he was considered a potential bust in the sport of stock car racing.
But here’s the thing: Jason Leffler was a damn good Nationwide Series driver.
I realize that may not mean much to many; most weight is put on succeeding in the Sprint Cup Series, not the series that’s, for all intents and purposes, directly beneath it on the ladder to stardom. However, a score of drivers, from the recent Hall of Fame inductee Jack Ingram to modern drivers like Jason Keller, are still known in the NASCAR conscious for being good with the opportunities they had.
The record books will show this on Leffler in the series: two wins, 42 top fives and 107 top-10 finishes in 294 starts.
But those stats could have been so much more.
In another recent commentary I wrote, I referenced what could have been had Cup drivers not become major players in Nationwide races and in the series championships starting around 2003. If you happened to remove all full-time Cup drivers from each race during those years, keeping the series regulars and all others, assuming the order was constant, Leffler would have won 25 races, not two. He also would have been the series champion in 2007, instead of finishing third to Carl Edwards and David Reutimann.
Leffler arguably stood to gain the most from a lack of Cup drivers. Had he pressed on without the Cup roadblocks ahead of him, his solid 2007-2010 seasons for Braun Racing and Turner Motorsports could have blossomed into another chance at NASCAR’s top level.
A third time could have been the charm.
It’s tough to say what Leffler could have done, because he didn’t get a good chance at Cup after a dismal 2005 with Joe Gibbs Racing. Did he deserve one? Well, judging by his results without Cup drivers, yeah. But that’s not what folks see; they see statistics that were commendable but didn’t necessarily do him any favors. That’s why his recent Cup starts were often either start-and-parks or for severely underfunded teams.
There was also, of course, his failed attempt at a Truck championship in 2012 with Kyle Busch Motorsports, a relationship that ended after 10 races, a top five and six top 10s. That, effectively, did him in.
Still, it’s best not to remember Leffler for his subpar Cup stats or his 2012 Truck lows.
We should remember Jason Leffler as one of the better Nationwide regulars of the day, caught in a period where Cup regulars ruled the show. He may not have always been the strongest, but he was almost always up there, and was always a threat for the highest finishing Nationwide regular.
I know that’s how I’ll be remembering him.
-Owen Kelly is returning to the NASCAR Nationwide Series after making his one and only start in the series in 2010 at Road America. The Australian, who filled in for Kyle Busch in qualifying at Montreal last season, will drive Busch’s No. 54 at Road America and Mid-Ohio.
-It’s unclear what happened to Tommy Baldwin Racing’s deal to put Corey LaJoie behind the wheel of one of its cars in select Nationwide races this season, but the team has picked up another young driver to field in the series in 2013, with the addition of Ryan Preece to its roster. Preece, a standout Whelen Modified competitor, will debut with the team at New Hampshire next month. He was recently named as one of the 13 drivers that will be part of the NASCAR Next program, so things are going fairly well for the 22-year-old.
-After finding mild success in his first two races with the team, Cole Whitt has signed on to drive at least five more races for TriStar Motorsports in the team’s No. 44 sometimes driven by Hal Martin. Whitt has secured sponsorship from Takagi, with the 2013 iteration of the partnership starting this weekend at Michigan and extending to the season finale at Homestead.
-Eric McClure has a new crew chief. John Monsam has been replaced atop the pit box of McClure’s No. 14 TriStar car, with Todd Myers taking over. Myers has been the crew chief for the team’s No. 10 start-and-park entry.
Looking Forward: Michigan
Stats (entered drivers):
Most Wins: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano (1)
Most Top Fives: Kyle Busch (4)
Most Top 10s: Paul Menard (6)
Most Poles: Brian Vickers, Austin Dillon, Paul Menard (1)
Top Average Finish: Cole Whitt (4.0, 1 race), Kyle Busch (4.8, 5), Joey Logano (5.0, 4), Brian Vickers (9.0, 5), Paul Menard (9.3, 7)
Michigan Nationwide Debuts: Landon Cassill, Chris Buescher, Nelson Piquet Jr., Kyle Larson, Joey Gase, Travis Pastrana, Juan Carlos Blum, Parker Kligerman, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Dexter Stacey, Alex Bowman
Season Debuts: Paul Menard
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