Jason Leffler came into the 2008 season as one of only a handful of Nationwide regulars thought to have even a shot at taking down the Cup whackers for the series championship. After being one of only two Nationwide Series regulars to win a Nationwide race last season (not counting Aric Almirola’s “win”) and finishing third in the series standings, Leffler and his Toyota-powered Braun Racing team was expected to be a contender week in and week out for the series title.
The season started rocky with disappointing runs at Daytona and Las Vegas, but the No. 38 team rebounded, scoring five consecutive top-15 finishes and then nearly winning the race at Talladega. Leffler and the No. 38 were back to form, and all systems appeared go.
That fire under the No. 38 team, however, has disappeared. Since Leffler scored a ninth-place run at Darlington, his team has finished in the top 10 only once, with five finishes outside the top 20 since Charlotte, including nasty wrecks at Charlotte and Dover. Leffler now finds himself mired 11th in the series points standings, having been bumped out of the top 10 by the little team that could of Jason Keller and CJM Racing.
What is concerning about this for Leffler and his No. 38 team is that while they have struggled, Braun Racing’s No. 32 team has continued to perform at a high level. Kyle Busch won at Charlotte in the No. 32 and was among the fastest cars in the field at Dover and Nashville. Development driver James Buescher scored top 15s in Braun Racing cars at Kentucky and Milwaukee. Denny Hamlin finished runner-up at Loudon. Brian Vickers was a top-five car at Daytona before breaking a rear end. Hamlin was the fastest car on track at Chicago. Braun Racing clearly hasn’t forgotten how to put a fast Nationwide Series car on the track, which makes Leffler’s struggles all the more perplexing. Something is definitely amiss when a team’s sole full-time driver can’t keep up with its part-timers.
Between the continued success of the No. 32 team and the dominance of the Nationwide Series by Toyotas in 2008, the equipment of Leffler and his No. 38 team is definitely not lacking. What appears to be lacking, instead, is the focus of Leffler and Braun Racing in general.
Despite struggling to keep up with Brad Keselowski, Mike Bliss and Keller among other Nationwide Series regulars, Leffler has made a point to run as many Sprint Cup races as he can for Haas CNC Racing’s No. 70 team, even skipping Nationwide Series practices at Nashville to allow himself to race at Pocono as well as traveling to do double duty between Kentucky and Michigan. Leffler’s frenetic schedule hasn’t paid off in either series. On weekends pulling double duty, Leffler has yet to score a top 15 for his No. 38 Nationwide Series car, and has been nothing more than a backmarker in Haas’s No. 70 Cup ride.
Why Leffler insists on running these Cup races has got to be questioned. Though Silly Season is in full force in the Cup Series, Leffler is not a name that’s been considered. And unless Tony Stewart drops the bombshell of all bombshells when he makes his next Haas CNC Racing announcement, Leffler doesn’t stand a chance of landing a ride at SHR for 2009. He’s washed out of Cup twice before, there’s no reason to think he’s going to get a third shot.
Another question has to be asked though, and that is why owner Todd Braun has allowed Leffler to travel with the Clint Bowyers and Carl Edwards of the world to do double-duty with the No. 38 team struggling on the track. Is it because Braun, along with Leffler, has bought into the notion that Jason has a third shot at Cup Series success in him? Or has Todd Braun become enamored with his success with the No. 32, content to facilitate Cup whackers like Hamlin and Kyle Busch?
All signs point to the Nationwide Series title being an afterthought in Braun Racing’s mind. When Busch took shots at Leffler for being a poor teammate at Dover, Todd Braun failed to come to Leffler’s defense in his subsequent interviews. While the No. 38 team has continued to fall down the points standings, the No. 32 has continued to have fast cars and to run up front.
Long and short, the No. 38 and the Nationwide Series title don’t appear to be the No. 1 to Jason Leffler and to Braun Racing anymore. And if one of the top independent Nationwide teams in the garage is treating the title like an afterthought, what does that say for the driver? For the team? For the series?