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Michigan Preview: Jason Leffler's death casts shadow

Photo: Patrick Smith/NASCAR via Getty Images

NASCAR drivers are much more fortified with safety equipment than their dirt track counterparts.

Photo: Tyler Barick/SI

Jason Leffler considered the dangerous dirt oval circuit to be "real racing."

The stories will be told and retold many times this weekend at Michigan International Speedway, anecdotes about the life and times of Jason Leffler. A veteran of NASCAR's top three series, Leffler died on Wednesday night from blunt force trauma to the neck after his winged Sprint car crashed at Bridgeport Speedway, a short dirt track in Swedesboro, N.J.

Only last week, Leffler, 37, started in the Cup event at Pocono Raceway. But he didn't enjoy it. He drove only eight laps for Humphrey Smith Racing, a small team, before pulling into the garage in a practice known as "start and park," which enables underfunded organizations to collect a check for starting but not jeopardizing their equipment. It was Leffler's only start in the Cup series in 2013 and he finished last. Not surprisingly, he told his friends he loathed the entire notion of the "start and park." In 73 career starts at NASCAR's highest level, Leffler had only one top-10 finish. Still, he earned over $5 million in career winnings.

Leffler enjoyed moderate success in the Nationwide Series. In 294 starts in the Triple-A of NASCAR, he won two races and had 42 top-five runs. He also won a truck series race in 2003. But his greatest joy was racing Sprint cars on local dirt tracks around the country. He was a USAC legend, winning three midget titles as well as a Silver Crown championship. This season he returned to his short-track roots and competed full time in winged Sprint car events.

Racing on local dirt tracks is far more dangerous than turning laps in NASCAR. These tacks don't have soft walls and the drivers aren't as fortified in winged Sprint cars as they are in stock cars. How perilous can racing be at local short tracks? Over Memorial Day weekend, three divers around the country lost their lives at them.

And now Leffler is gone, leaving behind a five-year-old son named Charlie, who friends say idolized his father. No doubt Leffler and Charlie will be on every driver's mind when the engines fire on Sunday afternoon in the Irish Hills of Michigan for race No. 15 of the 2013 Sprint Cup season.

Here are five drivers to watch on Sunday:

1. Jimmie Johnson

Last weekend at Pocono, Johnson piloted perhaps his best car in two years. Starting from the pole, he simply drove away from the field, leading 128 of the 160 laps and winning his third race of the 2013 season. He now holds a 51-point lead over Carl Edwards in the standings, which means Johnson could sit out a race and still maintain his place atop the standings.

In 22 career starts at Michigan, a flat two-mile oval, Johnson has never taken a checkered flag. But given his performance last weekend, he could very well be on the cusp of winning several races over the next two months. He finished fifth at MIS last June.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt's last victory came at Michigan one year ago. Back then, he had a dominant car, leading 95 of the 200 laps to end a winless streak that had stretched on for 143 races.

Currently fourth in the standings, he has been relatively quiet for the past nine races. Since finishing second in Fontana, Calif., in March, he's had only one top-five run -- last week at Pocono, where he was third. For years, Earnhardt had dreaded the summer months because he usually struggled during this portion of the schedule, but last year he came on in June and July and even seized the points lead before the start of the Chase. I expect him to repeat that performance in 2013.

3. Tony Stewart

One month ago, it appeared that Stewart had virtually no chance to qualify for the Chase. He was 21st in points and complaining each week about the poor balance in his No. 14 Chevy.

Then, in the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte on May 26, Stewart came in seventh -- his best finish of the season. He hinted afterward that he and his team of engineers and crew chiefs at Stewart-Haas Racing had suddenly figured out what was wrong with their cars. Eight days later, he won at Dover. Last Sunday at Pocono, he came in fourth. Now he's 13th in the standings and flashing as much speed as anyone in the series not named Jimmie Johnson.

Stewart finished second in this race at Michigan last year. Pencil him in for another top-five run on Sunday.

4. Carl Edwards

Even though Edwards is second in the standings, there's no question that the Ford teams have struggled this season with the aerodynamics of the new Gen-Six car, particularly with the nose on the Fords. But if the Ford engineers have figured anything out, they'll certainly unveil it this weekend. Why? Because races at Michigan International Speedway are always important to Edwards' team owner, Jack Roush, who views this as the home track of Ford, whose headquarters are in nearby Dearborn.

In 17 career starts at MIS, Edwards' career-average finish is 8.2, which makes this his second-best track statistically on the circuit (his best is Homestead, where his average finish is 6.0). Edwards likely won't be a threat to win on Sunday, but he should be near the leaders as the laps wind down.

5. Kyle Busch

Busch's two wins this season came at intermediate-length tracks like Michigan, so he should be formidable on Sunday. Last week at Pocono, Toyota Racing Development, which supplies the engines to Busch and his teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing, opted to scale back on horsepower in favor of reliability, which cost Busch and Hamlin any shot at catching Jimmie Johnson.

I'd be surprised if Busch and Hamlin are at a horsepower deficit on Sunday. Busch has been the best driver in the series this season on intermediate tracks, and he should contend for his third win of the year.

But it says here, on a day when Jason Leffler will be fondly remembered by everyone in the sport, Busch won't have the speed to catch the one driver who has pulled away from the field in 2013, the one driver who is clearly the favorite to win the 2013 Cup trophy: Jimmie Johnson, who on Sunday will notch his fourth win of the season.

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