Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Difference Of Three Days: A Tribute To Jason Leffler (1975-2013)

Jason Leffler in 2012
Last Sunday at Pocono, Jason Leffler competed in his 73rd NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.  He climbed aboard a flat white #19 Toyota which rolled off 42nd after qualifying was rained-out.  The car was fielded by Humphrey-Smith Motorsports, a start-up team founded by Randy Humphrey, who co-owned the Phil Parsons team from 2009 through 2011, and Mark Smith, the owner of current multi-car Nationwide Series team TriStar Motorsports.

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.


Not5for48 said...

I applaud you for a great article and an even greater realization that every driver that puts on a fire suit, helmet, etc. deserves some recognition.

Sadly I have not seen a statement from TRD yet. I wonder if they realize the Man that drove their name plate and logo on a Camry to it's first win has passed away.

They seem to have forgotten Jason Leffler. I am sure God will not though, Jason gets to join so many other outstanding people in the greatest Hall of Fame there is.

I will pray for his Widow and Young Son tonight, they are left to suffer the loss, deal with the aftermath, and put their lives back together while working through the grief. The loss of a life so close is very difficult to recover from.

RAEckart said...

Your heartfelt rememberance of Jason Leffler is really terrific, Brock. Thanks for taking the time to focus on our favorite drivers who may not always finish at the top.

Somehow last night, I thought of LASTCAR, knowing that you probably had the one written piece about Jason from this past weekend. It speaks to how important what you do is, because it lets us find our drivers that mean so much to a lot of folks.

You're very devoted to the data, but your writing is quite strong. Hopefully you get a chance to share this under better circumstances. RIP #LEFturn!

Lou said...

Mr. Beard,

Thank you for a heart felt post. There is always a back story.

The racing family will miss him. But not as much as his son.


Unknown said...

At least Joe Gibbs Racing ran a throwback to Jason's FedEx car from 2005 on the 11 for Denny at MIS the week afterwards.