Third time's the charm
Jason Leffler's first shot in Nextel Cup, in 2001 with Chip Ganassi Racing, was too soon. He flopped in his second chance, too, perhaps because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time with Joe Gibbs Racing in '05. Six weeks before Leffler's 30th birthday, it appeared he was headed to a lifetime career in NASCAR's Busch Series.
Leffler has toiled in Busch since the middle of '05 for Braun Racing, a small team without a Cup connection. Along with the rest of the Busch-only teams, Braun has had trouble beating the Cup drivers and teams known as the Buschwhackers.
In Leffler's 62nd start with Braun last Saturday, though, at O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis, he put himself back onto the radar for a Cup ride. Leffler made history, too, winning Toyota's first Busch race with a magnificent drive on the .686-mile track.
Leffler is the fourth Busch regular in the past two seasons to officially win and the third to take the checkered flag. Aric Almirola was credited with a win at Milwaukee in June because he started and drove the opening segment of the race before Denny Hamlin replaced him. David Gilliland's win at Kentucky last season elevated him instantaneously into Cup with Robert Yates Racing, and he's already been signed by the team for '08. And Stephen Leicht, another Yates development driver, won at Kentucky this season and appears eventually headed for Cup after another year of seasoning in Busch.
Leffler is ready to return to the big time now. He proved that at ORP, driving from seventh to first in the final 37 laps and passing Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and David Reutimann in the process.
Leffler also was helped by a Toyota operation that has been far more competitive in Busch than Cup this season. Dave Blaney was second at Daytona in February and Reutimann was second at Nashville. Leffler had been third twice and was fourth at Gateway International Raceway, located outside St. Louis, in the previous race.
The three teams were competing to get the car maker's first win.
"All three of the Camrys have been running strong lately in the Busch cars, so I knew it was going to be close and I knew it was going to come soon," Leffler said. "I really wanted to be the one to do it and I'm really happy for [owner] Todd [Braun] and our whole team for being the ones to pick up the win. I'm pretty excited to have my name going into the history books as Toyota's first Busch Series winner."
Leffler first-ever Busch race win came in a rain-shortened race at Nashville in '04 with Haas CNC Racing. He also has a NASCAR Craftsman Truck win, in '03 at Dover.
Following the path into NASCAR established by Jeff Gordon and reinforced by Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, Leffler won three straight USAC National Midget titles from '97-99 and also was the '98 USAC Silver Crown champion. He's in the National Midget Hall of Fame.
Leffler moved into Busch with Gibbs, running 31 races with three poles and two top-fives in '00. It convinced Ganassi to sign Leffler for his Cup program the next season.
But Leffler lacked the stock-car experience to be successful. He failed to qualify for several races, sat out the road courses and had an average finish of 27.7 in 30 starts. Ganassi released him, and Leffler drove in the truck series in '02.
He then joined Haas, driving in 10 Cup races and six Busch races in '03 and was having a solid Busch season in '04 when the team released him with seven races remaining. Leffler was third in the points.
Gibbs signed him for the new No. 11 FedEx car in Cup for '05, but Leffler and the first-year team never got untracked. He didn't have a top-10 and had an average finish of 27.5 in 19 starts. Gibbs released him in early August and put Hamlin and J.J. Yeley in the car.
With a Cup résumé of 62 starts and one top-10 finish, Leffler headed back to Busch with Braun.
And what a move it has been. Leffler is third in the points. It has been a long and, probably, painful process for Leffler to rebuild his career, and he'll soon find out if it was worth it. He has the maturity and experience to make it in Cup now.
Braun has a six-race deal with its primary sponsor, Great Clips, to run in Cup next season, and Leffler is hopeful that more sponsorship can be found to expand the schedule.
Toyota will undoubtedly provide some support. It has made a practice of supporting its teams and drivers who want to move up in various series.. That was the case with Reutimann, whose jump from Trucks to Cup was heavily influenced by Toyota.
Toyota is in need of young talent to build around and there isn't a lot of it available in the short term. Leffler will be 32 in September, heading into his prime as a stock car driver. He deserves a third opportunity in Cup.
Tony Stewart has made it clear that his commitment to Joe Gibbs Racing is his top priority, but he would like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to figure out a way to allow him to return to the Indy 500.
"We need Indy to work with us on that one 'cause there's no way we can get (to Charlotte) with the time change," Stewart said. "No way can you finish Indy and get down in time to start the 500. I've learned to never say never. I told the people at Chevy, I'm not going to say I'm never going to be back here in an IndyCar. There's a lot of things that have to happen for that to happen."
Stewart is not alone among Cup drivers who would welcome a chance to run the 500. Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards have told me in interviews in recent years they'd run it if it were possible. There are likely others.
Indianapolis CEO Tony George could lay the groundwork by moving the race to Monday. There are problems with that -- primarily the threat of rain and travel for some of the fans -- but it would send the status and the television ratings of the 500 soaring to have Stewart, Johnson and Edwards in the race.
Sunday's IndyCar Series race at Michigan International Speedway will be the last until at least 2009 and, probably, longer. MIS has announced the IndyCars won't be on the schedule next year because of a lack of a suitable date.
What has changed? The Indy car date has traditionally been between the two Nextel Cup races and is again next year. What is new is an IndyCar race in Detroit, the track's primary market, on September. Many observers, including me, suspect the race on the road course at Belle Isle is the reason for MIS dropping IndyCar. The track has a hard enough time selling tickets for it without another race in the same market.
It's difficult to understand IndyCar's decision to schedule a race in Detroit. It moves the series out of an oval track with a rich history. Indy cars ran in 1968 and from '70 to '78 under USAC sanction, from '79 to 2001 under CART, and since '02 under the Indy Racing League. The track has produced some of the best racing in Indy car history.
They're trading it for a temporary road-course circuit that last ran in '01 under CART and never was a great track or a dynamic event. IndyCar made a good decision to add a limited number of street and road course events a few years ago, but this one cost them a great oval race.
Scott Dixon has won the last three IndyCar races and has closed the gap to Dario Franchitti to 24 points with five remaining. Dixon will try to become the first IndyCar Series driver to win four straight.