|Jason Leffler in 2012|
SOURCE: NASCAR Media
Leffler was filling in for Mike Bliss, the primary driver of the car, who that day was competing in the Nationwide event at Iowa. Without sponsorship for the 400-mile race, Leffler followed team orders and pulled behind the wall after eight laps. The exit resulted in Leffler’s seventh last-place finish in Cup and his tenth among NASCAR’s top three divisions.
Leffler’s brief appearance in the race, like that of the other drivers for so-called “start-and-park” teams, wasn’t mentioned in Sunday’s telecast. It’s become commonplace for broadcasts to not show the car pull behind the wall, nor interview the driver after they’ve exited. All we see is the same thing we saw on Sunday - a driver’s number moving to the tail end of the scoring crawl at the top of the screen with the word “OFF,” then “OUT” appearing next to their name. Since Leffler finished last, he was featured on this website along with the relevant statistics.
Three days later, Leffler was killed in a crash while competing in a sprint car heat race at the Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey. He was 37.
In the days ahead, we’re going to hear a lot more about Leffler. We’re going to hear about his pair of Nationwide Series victories, including that night at Indianapolis Raceway Park in 2007 when he gave the Toyota Camry its first NASCAR win. We’re going to hear about his lone start in the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, the day Juan Pablo Montoya became the first rookie since Graham Hill to win the Memorial Day classic. We’re probably even going to hear about how he got the #11 FedEx team off the ground for Joe Gibbs in 2005 or how he scored his first Cup Series pole as a rookie during the inaugural Cup race at Kansas in 2001.
We’re going to hear a lot about a driver whose run at Pocono, just three days ago, was mentioned only here.
I don’t mean to ignore the very real tragedy that has taken place, nor try to turn it into some selfish self-promotion. I don’t have the right. But, in looking over the article I wrote about him on Sunday, I am reminded of what led me to start this website in the first place, and that there’s something I, like much of the NASCAR media, still need to work on going forward.
There are, in fact, stories behind every single driver who starts a race, and regardless of where they finish, that story is still worth telling. Only by knowing what a driver has gone through, even on a bad day, can finishes like Michael McDowell and J.J. Yeley’s top-ten runs in the Daytona 500 be given proper context. And only with such knowledge can we truly honor the life of Jason Leffler.
It’s a sad reality that, often, stories about many drivers in the field just don’t get told. I still lay much of the blame on NASCAR’s TV broadcasts for their sheer dearth of coverage regarding the sport’s lower-funded teams and drivers, even while they tout “unprecedented access” behind the scenes. There’s often very little I can use from the broadcasts in my LASTCAR articles, and I have to piece things together from other sources online. Some sources are more reliable than others, and without being an insider, it’s hard to get these stories first-hand.
But there’s always room for improvement.
I hope that, as the rest of the media sits down tonight to write articles about Leffler’s life, his accomplishments, and his tragic death, that the authors are thinking about the same thing I’m thinking. I hope they remind themselves that, while racing is about winning, without a field of drivers to compete against - drivers like Jason Leffler - those wins mean nothing.