Monday, July 17, 2017

COMMENTARY: Modern Fans Know Nothing Of Dominance

Martin Truex, Jr. drove to Victory Lane in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway two weeks ago, winning both preliminary stages and leading the final round by more than 15 seconds before surviving a final green-white-checkered flag restart to claim his third victory of the 2017 campaign.
Truex’s win – coupled with another three-stage sweep at Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier this season and an even more-dominant performance in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte – drew howls of derision from some corners of the NASCAR universe, as fans complained about a lack of competition at the front of the pack.
Oh, if they only knew…
In 1967, a decade or three before many current fans were even born, Richard Petty authored the most dominant season in NASCAR history. In 47 premier-series starts on 14 paved ovals, 34 dirt ovals and the Riverside (CA) road course, Petty won a whopping 27 times (57.4%). In all but nine of those wins, Petty lapped the entire field.
Petty cruised to 27 wins...
The maximum number of cars finishing on the lead lap in any event that season was three. In the Beltsville 200 at Maryland’s Beltsville Speedway on Friday night, May 19, only 16 cars took the green flag, with winner Jim Paschal, Petty and third-place finisher Bobby Allison finishing on the lead lap. Donnie Allison was two laps behind in fourth place, with Paul Lewis five laps back in fifth.
Imagine how today’s fans would react to a 16-car starting field, with just three lead-lap finishers. The din would be deafening.
Twice during that 1967 campaign, Petty went to Victory Lane after leading every lap from green flag to checkers, maintaining the top spot even during green-flag pit stops. His Petty Enterprises Plymouth was so dominant that for the season, the North Carolina native enjoyed an average victory margin of 1.5 laps.
...including a record 10 in a row.
From August 12 to October 1, Petty went undefeated, winning a record 10 consecutive races at Winston-Salem (NC), Columbia (SC), Savannah (GA), Darlington (SC), Hickory (NC), Beltsville (MD), Martinsville (VA) and North Wilkesboro (NC) Speedways.
Imagine the reaction if Truex, Kyle Larson or Jimmie Johnson copped even three checkered flags in a row this season.
In addition to being the biggest winner of 1967, Petty was also the only driver to run every event. He finished 6,028 points ahead of championship runner-up James Hylton, who competed in 45 of 47 races.  Third-place finisher Dick Hutcherson made only 32 starts, finishing nearly 9,000 points behind Petty.
“King Richard” also led a total of 4,496 laps that season; an average of 166 circuits per race.
Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to grouse about a modern-day driver “dominating the field” with a 10-second lead.

As Summer Temperatures Soar, Silly Season Heats Up

As NASCAR hits its annual summer stretch, the weather is not the only thing heating up. Even as the battle for 16 berths in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs hits its stretch drive, Silly Season 2018 is already well underway.

Veteran Matt Kenseth kicked the speculation into high gear two weeks ago, announcing that he will not return to the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota next season. Days later, JGR confirmed Kenseth’s departure, saying that 2017 Rookie of the Year contender Erik Jones will replace the 2003 MENCS champion next season.

Team owner Joe Gibbs said the move has been in the works for some time, but was accelerated by Carl Edwards’ unexpected offseason retirement; a decision that accelerated young Daniel Suarez to the MENCS ranks sooner than expected.

“We got put in this situation with a lot of things happening to our race team over a period of about a year and half,” said Gibbs. “We didn’t want to be here, but we wound up here and had to make a decision.

“This wound up being a team decision, and (with) me owning the team, it fell to me to make this decision. We didn’t want to do this, it wasn’t the right timing for us, (but) a lot of things played into it where we had to make a decision.”

“We love everything about Matt,” said Gibbs of the driver who has won 14 races since joining JGR in 2013. “Everything he’s done for us has been awesome. He was great off the track, he’s a great driver with a lot of talent, and we hate the fact that we’ll be racing against him.”

Kenseth for Junior at HMS?
Kenseth is unlikely to remain unemployed for long. He has been linked with the No. 10 Ford at Stewart Haas Racing, should Danica Patrick not return to that ride next season. And multiple sources say that both Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson are lobbying hard for Kenseth to replace Earnhardt at Hendrick Motorsports, when Earnhardt steps away from full-time competition at season's end. The 45-year old Kenseth would provide an ideal bridge between Earnhardt and heir-apparent William Byron, should team officials decide that Byron will benefit from an additional season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

Hendrick also has a stake in young Alex Bowman, who recorded three Top-10 finishes in 10 starts last season after Earnhardt was sidelined with a concussion. Bowman’s best finish -- a sixth from the pole at Phoenix in November – was as good as anything mustered by four-time series champion Jeff Gordon in a similar relief stint, and marked Bowman as a potential star of the future.

For the driver known as “The Showman,” it’s all about sponsorship. If a backer can be found to roll the dice on a young, largely unproven driver – the way Axalta is reportedly willing to do with Byron – Bowman could well have a seat at the Hendrick table in 2018.

Kasey Kahne: Embattled
If he does, it will likely be at the expense of embattled veteran Kasey Kahne, who is believed to be on the hot seat despite having one year remaining on his current, three-year contact. Currently ranked 22nd in points and a long shot (at best) to make the playoffs, Kahne has managed just two Top-5 finishes this season. Since a fifth-place outing at Talladega in early May, Kahne has an average finish of just 25.7, with three results of 35th or worse.

That kind of results will not keep a driver employed for long, and with sponsors Farmer's Insurance and Great Clips already planning to leave at season's end, Kahne may need a competitive resurrection in the coming weeks to save his job.

“If I haven’t performed by 2018, I need to leave,” said a potentially prophetic Kahne a year ago. “It’s pretty simple. That will have nothing to do with William Byron or anyone else. If I haven’t performed by then, it’s time to go do something different.”

Ryan Blaney is also expected to be on the move at season’s end, leaving Wood Brothers Racing for a new, third Team Penske Ford. While not yet confirming the move, team owner Roger Penske has made no secret of his desire to bring Blaney in-house in 2018, leaving the Wood Brothers in need of a new driver for the second time in the last three seasons.

Menard: Wood Brothers-bound?
Sources say current Richard Childress Racing driver Paul Menard may be that driver, jumping to the Ford camp after seven seasons at RCR. Childress laid off approximately a dozen employees last week, not long after handing veterans crew chiefs Gil Martin and Slugger Labbe pink slips of their own. RCR spokespersons say the moves were nothing more than a reaction to overstaffing, but sources inside the walls say the team is preparing for the possibility of life without Menard and his lucrative, home improvement sponsorship. 

If Menard leaves, the door could be open for Ty Dillon to join elder-brother Austin in the RCR Cup camp. That would leave Ty’s current ride – the Germain Racing No. 13 Chevrolet – vacant.
Aric Almirola is also getting some Silly Season love, with scuttlebutt circulating that he and sponsor Smithfield could abandon Richard Petty Motorsports next season, possibly to replace Patrick at Stewart Haas Racing.
Darrell "Bubba" Wallace could also be a candidate for any open seat in 2018, after an impressive four-race stint in relief of Almirola that saw him improve his finishing position with every start. An 11th in his final race at Kentucky marked Wallace's 2017 high water mark.
No matter how the 2017 playoffs pan out, it appears that in the next few months, there could be as much NASCAR news made off the track as on it.








Monday, July 10, 2017

COMMENTARY: Kentucky Win Establishes Truex As Championship Favorite

One year ago, a single bad outing at Talladega Superspeedway cost Martin Truex, Jr. and Furniture Row Racing a shot at the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. This time around, the team appears to be in no mood for a repeat.

Truex dominated Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, leading 152 of 274 laps and winning all three stages en route to his third victory of the 2017 campaign. And in doing so, he established himself as a clear favorite to claim the 2017 MENCS title.

In 18 races this season, no other driver has swept all three stages in a single event. Truex has now done it twice, after turning the trick at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March. Saturday’s performance was the most dominant in NASCAR since last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when Truex clubbed the field by leading all but eight of 400 laps. Saturday, Truex claimed the checkered flag despite a final green-white-checkered flag restart that left him on old tires, while his closest pursuers pitted for new rubber. It didn’t matter, as Truex easily drove away from Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott to claim the win.

“I was worried every lap, waiting for a caution,” said an incredulous Truex afterward. “Especially at the end. You’re counting them down… the last 30, the last 20, the last 10, and then you get inside of five and you’re like, `Oh my God, there’s no way there’s not going to be a caution.’ And sure enough, there was. Fortunately, we were able to hold them off.
"This is very, very big to be able to do what we did," he added. "This was probably the best car I've ever had in my entire career. I can never recall saving fuel and pulling away from everybody before, so it was pretty amazing.”
The win was Truex’s third of the season, tying him with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson for the series lead. More important, it cemented Furniture Row Racing’s status as a team that can dominate – and win – at any time, on any size track. And with the 2017 playoffs now just eight weeks away, the Mayetta, NJ native has everything he needs to erase the memory of last season’s bitter Talladega elimination.

Truex collected his 13th stage win of the season Saturday night – nine more than any other driver. His 28 playoff points are a dozen more than second-best Johnson, and will give him a healthy head-start on the field when the playoffs begin at Chicagoland Speedway on September 17. For an organization as consistently fast as Furniture Row, that head start should be enough to push Truex all the way to the Championship Four at Homestead Miami Speedway.

"Martin was super-fast,” said runner-up Larson Saturday. “He has been really, really fast all year long. I think we've been second best to him, but he's in a whole other league right now."
Larson’s “whole other league” assessment is shared by many in the NASCAR garage who have spent the last six months chasing the black No. 78 Toyota, without success.
In order to be successful in NASCAR’s new playoff format, a team must be consistent enough to avoid disasters; logging Top-10 finishes each week in order to advance. Barring that, a team must have the ability to win on demand; erasing a poor finish by driving to Victory Lane and claiming an automatic advancement to the next round.

Truex has both; consistency and the ability to win. He has led 257 more laps than any other driver this season, and tops the sport in checkered flags, as well. That combination will be difficult to beat, especially since the competition will be racing from behind in every round of the playoffs.

"I think he's peaking right now," said team owner Barney Visser following Saturday’s dominant win. “For the last year, I've thought he was as good as anyone in the garage. Now I think he's better than anyone in the garage. You saw what he did on that last restart, putting it down in Turn 1. He's just that good."
Visser stood by his driver during a traumatic 2014 season when Truex's longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer, offering him an opportunity to step away from the sport and focus on Pollex; secure that his ride would be waiting on the other side. Truex ran every race that season, forging a bond with his owner and team that made them one of the best in the sport.
Ironically, Truex revealed Saturday that Pollex has had a recurrence of cancer -- as 80-percent of ovarian cancer survivors do – and underwent surgery last weekend in Charlotte, NC.
“We found out a while ago about it," he explained. "She went in this weekend to have some surgery done. Everything went perfectly good. It went as planned. I'm going to bring her home tomorrow. I'm excited to get home and see her, and everything is going great."
Pollex posted a video of herself leaving the hospital Sunday, smiling and focusing – as always – on the positive. Truex is doing the same, openly speaking of a 2017 championship that would define his career.
"I would say that it would change me,” he said. “It wouldn't change who I am (and) it wouldn't really change my life. But it would be a hell of an accomplishment for my career.
“We're going to try our best, and I feel like we have a good shot at it. We've consistently been a front-runner for the last couple years, and hopefully that continues.”
Make no mistake about it. With nine races remaining until the playoffs begin, Martin Truex, Jr. is the man to beat for the 2017 championship.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

COMMENTARY: Random Thoughts After A Long Day At Daytona International Speedway

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is suddenly becoming a restrictor plate master. The Roush Fenway Racing driver won Saturday night’s 59th annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway, just weeks after winning his first career at Talladega Superspeedway earlier this season. “I kept my Talladega (winning) car and told them to build a new one,” said Stenhouse in Victory Lane. “They built a Fifth Third Ford that was really fast. I’ve been coming here since 2008… and it’s cool to put it in Victory Lane and get our second win this year. This validates what we did at Talladega.” Stenhouse was winless in his first 157 MENCS races, but now has two checkered flags in his last eight starts, cementing a spot in the 2017 playoffs.

There was no shortage of ruffled feathers Saturday night, as drivers traded paint and blocked aggressively, from start to finish. Runner-up Clint Bowyer said aggression and risk-taking are a requirement for anyone who expects to run up front at Daytona. "You've got to block hard, cut people off and push hard," he said. "You've got to stick your nose in there where it doesn't belong; all things that you know are capable of disaster. If you don't, the next guy is going to. And nine times out of 10, it works. That's just the nature of the beast."

Brendan Gaughan made his third MENCS start of the season Saturday night, claiming a stellar, seventh-place finish for an underfunded, undermanned Beard Motorsports organization that had not completed since Talledega in early May. Gaughan survived two bouts with the wall with 69 laps remaining, then drove his No. 75 Beard Oil Chevrolet back through the field to claim his second Top-12 result of the campaign.

Anxious times for Logano 
Joey Logano's encumbered win at Richmond is shaping up to be the biggest penalty in the history of NASCAR. With six playoff spots currently available to drivers based on points, Logano is on the outside, looking in. A crash-marred 35th-place finish Saturday night left the Team Penske driver three points out of a coveted playoff spot, trailing fellow non-winners Kyle Busch, Chase Elliot, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Clint Boyer and Matt Kenseth. If he fails to win again in the next nine weeks -– and a driver below him in the standings goes to Victory Lane -- Logano could easily find himself watching the 2017 playoffs from the sidelines.

People who grouse that NASCAR should start July races in Daytona Beach at 11 AM to avoid those ever-present 3 PM thunderstorms ignore the fact that it rained at noon Saturday. You just can't predict what Mother Nature is going to do.

Wallace and Blaney: Good Times
Seeing the sport's most iconic entries -- Richard Petty's No. 43 and the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 -- run side-by-side for the lead at Daytona was worth the price of admission, all by itself. Best buddies Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney were likely beaming like Cheshire cats, at least until Blaney succumbed to the competitive nature that plagues all racers and hung Wallace out to dry with a testosterone-rich move that earned him the top spot just a few laps later. Perfect.

Joe Gibbs Racing's 2017 winless streak becomes more incomprehensible with every passing week.

At one point within sight of the checkered flag Saturday night, 16 of the top 18 drivers were chasing their first win of the 2017 campaign. Only Jimmie Johnson and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., had cracked Victory Lane already this season, and Stenhouse ultimately claimed the checkered flag.

Seeing David Ragan contend for the checkered flag at Daytona International Speedway no longer qualifies as a surprise. 

Dillon was strong at Daytona
Rookies Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez and Corey LaJoie all contended strongly for the win Saturday night, only to discover a harsh reality about restrictor plate racing. Nobody drafts with rookies when the chips are down.

Dillon correctly refused to second-guess the late-race move that dropped him from second to 16th in the finishing order. "I'm kicking myself because the finish doesn't show what we are capable of," he said, after pulling out of line in a bid to take the lead and drawing absolutely no drafting partners. "But I would be more disappointed just sitting there waiting and not making something happen. I'm a go-getter. My personality might have gotten us a bad finish, but it also got us up to the front." 

LaJoie's 11th-place finish was by far the best of his rookie MENCS season, after a trying freshman campaign aboard Ron Devine's No. 23 BK Racing Toyota. Prior to Saturday, the third-generation racer's best showings had been a pair of 24th-place finishes at Daytona and Bristol.

The lunatic conspiracy theorists who pointed to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s Daytona pole as proof of NASCAR's manipulation of events were predictably silent when the sport's perennial most popular driver failed to win Saturday. Earnhardt is now 25th in the championship standings, winless in 17 races this season and unlikely to qualify for the playoffs in his final run as a full-time driver. If the sanctioning body is really rigging races, they are colossally bad at it.

One unexpected byproduct of Stenhouse's victory? Seeing Danica Patrick smile; a sight that becomes more and more rare with every passing week.

Kahne (5) had another rough night
Kasey Kahne's luckless season continued at Daytona. After running at the front of the pack throughout the night and contending for the win in the late going, the Hendrick Motorsports driver was swept up in a late-race melee and finished 18th. Rumors continued to swirl surrounding his status at HMS, and Saturday night's result will do little to quiet the whispers.

 Michael McDowell will win a MENCS race one day. And when he does, the entire population of the NASCAR garage will smile. Except for Bowyer, who will almost certainly finish second.

Fans who bemoaned Saturday's record 14 caution flags somehow had no complaints with the thrilling, three and four-wide action that produced them. Crashes are a byproduct of intense, competitive racing. You can't have one without the other.


And finally, while we're on the topic, can anyone dispute that NASCAR's new stage racing format has interjected a whole new level of excitement to the first two-thirds of race events? When is the last time you saw drivers go four wide in an attempt to lead Lap 40 of a 160-lap race? I had my misgivings when the new system was announced, but those misgivings were long ago put to bed. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

COMMENTARY: Luckless Patrick Facing Career Crossroads

Danica Patrick just can’t win for losing.

The Stewart Haas Racing driver started her weekend at Sonoma Raceway is encouraging fashion; qualifying sixth for Sunday’s running of the Toyota/Save Mart 350. But as soon as the green flag waved, Patrick’s luck turned sour.

Just 14 laps into the event, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spun in Turn 11 and slid his Axalta-sponsored Chevrolet across the track, into the path of Patrick’s oncoming Ford.

"Wrong place, wrong time," explained Earnhardt afterward. "Danica was trying to protect her position, and I went even lower than we normally go. It's real slick down there, and I just locked up the rear tires. I'll take some of the responsibility, for sure."

Patrick sang a similar tune, saying Earnhardt, “kind of lost it.

“I went to the outside, and there were cars all slowing down ... and he spun across,” she said. “There was a lot of dive-bombing today… but there's a limit to the amount of grip and the amount of braking power that these cars have."

The impact damaged both machines, and crew chief Billy Scott called Patrick to pit road for repairs and fresh tires. The Code 3 Associates driver quickly worked her way forward from the back of the pack, however. climbing as high as 21st before a scheduled, green-flag pit stop on Lap 22 for tires and fuel.

Not long after the start of the race’s second stage, Patrick once again found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, Kyle Larson attempted a three-wide, banzai move that ended with a second round of contact with Earnhardt. Patrick went spinning into the path of boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who was left with nowhere to go.

"Tell Ricky I'm sorry," said a sheepish Patrick, after Stenhouse suffered sufficient damage to end his day.

“They were three-wide in front of us trying to go through Turn 4, which never works,” said an angry Stenhouse after a mandatory trip to the track’s Infield Care Center. “They were all dive-bombing each other and then (Danica) got spinning and I tried to go low. She just kept coming down the track. We just clipped it a little bit and tore the left front up too bad to continue.”

Patrick was able to continue, once again pitting for tires and repairs. She began the race’s final stage in 18th place, and ran as high as fourth as the field cycled through a series of green-flag pit stops. She dropped to 28th after a final pit stop on lap 80, before racing her battered Ford back through the pack to finish 17th at the drop of the checkered flag.

“It definitely wasn’t the day the Code 3 Associates team was expecting,” said Patrick of her pinball-esque afternoon. “But we were able to battle back to a decent finish. The car was just awful in the final laps of the last two runs, but we made the most of it at the end.

"It's just a lot of people dive-bombing” she added. “It's part of what makes road-course racing exciting in a stock car, because you don't climb wheels. You just bump fenders. It just wasn't the day we expected to have.

Someday, (our luck) it will go the other way.”

In the aftermath of Sunday’s outing, Patrick now stands 28th in the championship standings. Her only shot at a 2017 playoff berth is to win a race in the next few weeks; an unlikely prospect considering that she is winless in 233 career stock car starts, and has recorded just one Top-10 finish – a 10th at Dover earlier this month – in her last 78 races.

When Patrick first came to NASCAR in 2010, fans and media stood 30-deep around her car and radio and TV clamored to interview her before and after every race. Sponsorship flowed like water, and Patrick ranked as one of the sport’s most recognizable drivers.

Since then, however, the hype has cooled. A half-decade or more of mid-pack finishes has made Patrick less relevant to the media and less attractive to sponsors these days, and the rumor mill is rife with speculation that she will not return to Stewart Haas Racing next season.

Patrick has openly admitted “not having fun” on the race track this season, adding that if her performances don’t improve, she may look for something else to do on Sunday afternoons.

“Every year I come into it with hope,” said Patrick earlier this season. “Now, that hope has kind of been crushed. We’ve been through enough races (that) it’s not going to be like a light switch. It’s time for some honesty. It’s time for some figuring out what the hell we’re doing because this is not helping anybody.”
“It doesn’t really help anybody if I’m out there running 25th. I’m not sure that does a lot for me.”

Patrick certainly isn’t in it for the money. She has been well compensated throughout her IndyCar and NASCAR careers, and recently published a health and fitness book, “Pretty Intense.” She launched her “Warrior by Danica Patrick” line of fitness apparel earlier this year to rave reviews, and admitted that if her on-track fortunes do not improve, there could be a team change – or even a career change – in her near future.

“It could mean either, to be honest,” she said. “If I could do better with a different team, then I would do it. I love racing. But I don’t love being miserable every weekend like I am now.

“The people around me probably aren’t that happy, either. None of us want to go out there and not run well. It’s a matter of being realistic about what’s going to be possible, what makes sense and where I’m going to be the most successful.”

With just 10 races remaining in the 2017 regular season – 10 more chances to regain her on-track relevance – Danica Patrick stands at a career crossroads. If her performance continues to flounder, 2017 will almost certainly mark her final season with a top-tier NASCAR team.

A little luck would certainly help change that outlook.










Monday, June 12, 2017

Four Years Later, Remembering Jason Leffler

Today is the fourth anniversary of the day former NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series driver Jason Leffler lost his life in a savage Sprint Car crash at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. Our eulogy for "LefTurn" remains one of the most-read articles in the history of GodfatherMotorsports.com, and we re-post it today in memory of our friend Jason. 

He is gone, but not forgotten.

Dave Moody
Writer/Editor
GodfatherMotorsports.com
 

Charlie Dean Leffler’s daddy died last night, torn from the world in a crash so stunning, so horrific that it once again causes us to question our devotion to a sport that all too often breaks our hearts.

NASCAR driver Jason Leffler was pronounced dead shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday, after a grinding crash at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. Witnesses said his 410 Sprint Car impacted the Turn Four wall during a qualifying heat race and flipped wildly down the front stretch of the 0.625-mile dirt oval.  Safety teams extricated the unconscious driver from his vehicle, with plans to transport him to Cooper University Hospital in Camden. His condition deteriorated rapidly while awaiting arrival of a medivac helicopter, however, and responders elected to transport him by ground ambulance to nearby Crozer-Chester Medical Center, where efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
As word of the crash began to circulate, I did what I always do in situations like this. I told myself that the reports were untrue or exaggerated; the sad result of internet hysteria and a public raised on reality TV. When it became clear that a serious crash had indeed occurred, I prayed that Leffler’s injuries were not severe, assuring myself that he would back in the cockpit in a few weeks, or months.
Just before 10 p.m., however, a phone call from a colleague brought the horrible reality home. Jason Leffler was dead, leaving us to mourn – and remember --once again.
I have so many memories of the man we called “LefTurn.” He was a weekly guest on our Sirius XM Speedway radio program for years, sharing his life – both on and off the track – with a degree of candor that was both refreshing and rare. There were plenty of good days; wins in both the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, championship-contending rides with elite owners like Joe Gibbs and Chip Ganassi, and a trio of runs in the legendary Indianapolis 500.
There were also a few bad days; crushing race-day defeats, championship shortcomings and the loss of his Nationwide and Truck Series rides. When he and Alison decided to end their marriage a few years ago, Leffler made his weekly appearance as scheduled, despite a heavy heart.
“Leff, we don’t have to do this today,” I told him. “If you want to take a pass, we can catch up next week.”
“Nah, dude,” he replied. “It’s OK. I got no secrets.”
In the months that followed, Leffler spoke constantly of his desire to be a loving and involved father to Charlie, despite the demands of his racing career. Our weekly, 4 p.m. conversations often coincided with the end of Charlie’s afternoon nap, and the unpredictability of a newly-awakened two-year old made our visits an absolute joy.
A year ago, I crossed paths with Jason and Charlie, sharing a “Boys Day Out” lunch at a local restaurant. While Jason and I talked racing, Charlie demolished a massive salad, shoveling huge forkfuls of lettuce into his mouth while simultaneously carrying on a silent flirtation with my wife.
“Charlie, you ate the whole thing,” laughed Leffler at the end of our chat. “What am I supposed to eat?”
“Sorry Daddy,” replied Charlie, “I was very hungry!”
How do you tell a five-year old boy that daddy is not coming home tonight? How do you explain that his father, his best friend and his hero – all rolled into one – has been cut down by a sport that exacts such a horrible toll from its brightest lights?
The loss is unfathomable, unacceptable and unbelievable.
Today, I mourn the loss of a phenomenal talent; a man who could run an entire, 10-lap heat race at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals on three wheels, his left-front tire twitching in mid-air in an awe-inspiring display of chassis-bending bravado.
I mourn the loss of a friend whose zest for life, winning smile and goofy, faux-hawk hairdo never failed to make me smile.
I mourn the loss of a father who adored his son and deserved to see him grow up.
A quote attributed to the author Ernest Hemingway said, “There are but three true sports -- bullfighting, mountain climbing, and motor-racing. The rest are merely games.”
All sports include a varying degree of risk, but auto racing is especially adept at destroying its own. Racers have a special relationship with death. They brush shoulders with it daily, acknowledging its presence with a passing nod while clinging stubbornly to the belief that it’ll never happen to them.
“Last year, I did a part-time truck deal,” said Leffler to Motor Racing Network’s Winged Nation recently. “It was the least I had raced since I was 18 (and) mentally, it wasn’t good. I don’t like being home. I just like being in the race car at the race track.
“The (NASCAR) start-and-park deal is not for me,” he said. “I had a good run for over a decade, so it’s time to get back racing.”
Big-league NASCAR racing had not suffered a fatality since the great Dale Earnhardt crashed to his death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. In that time, SAFER barriers, HANS devices, improved helmet and seat technology and car construction have made the sport safer than at any point before. But make no mistake about it, auto racing is not safe, and it never will be.

As long as men and women strap themselves into objects capable of eclipsing 200 miles per hour, as long as they test the boundaries of human endurance at places like Daytona, Lemans, Winchester and Bridgeport, horrible things can – and will -- happen. Until the laws of physics are repealed, the immovable force will always trump the unstoppable object. And when it does, racers will die.
Jason Leffler knew that. We all knew that. But it doesn’t make what happened Wednesday evening any easier to accept.

Bubba Wallace Speaks On Racing... And Race

Sunday was not the greatest day of Darrell “Bubba” Wallace’s racing career. A trio of pit-road speeding penalties relegated him to 26th place in Sunday’s Pocono 400, his inaugural Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start in “King” Richard Petty’s iconic No. 43 Ford.

After his imperfect Pocono outing, Wallace became lightheaded and fainted on pit road, before being treated and released at the track’s Infield Care Center.

“Heck of a way to end it, passing out,” joked Wallace, who became the first African-American driver to compete in NASCAR premier series event since Bill Lester in 2006. "It has happened three times now where I’m just so mad that I pass out."

The 23-year old Alabama native drove in place of Aric Almirola Sunday, after Almirola suffered a broken vertebra in a crash at Kansas Speedway last month. And earlier in the weekend, he spoke at length about the opportunity, admitting that he is conscious of the role he plays as an African American driver in a predominantly white sport.

“This is a huge step for NASCAR, bringing diversity to its top‑tier level of NASCAR,” said Wallace. “I'm glad to be leading the forefront of that right now. It shows that we're trying to bring in a new demographic. We're trying to bring in new faces, get a younger generation, no matter what color (or) what age. We're trying to get everybody involved. It's been a fun journey.”

He said that the perception of NASCAR as a sport unwelcoming to people of color was “shut down a long time ago. It's just a matter of finding what race track is in your area, going out and purchasing a ticket… just coming out and enjoying the sport. I think (minority) fans are making that call, wanting to come out and enjoy the sport; knowing they can get in, have a great time and cheer on their favorite driver.  And I could be their new favorite driver.”

Wallace said he has never been deterred by the lack of minority drivers in NASCAR, adding, “I started out in the sport because it was something fun and new for me. I never even paid attention to see if there was anybody that looked like me growing up in the sport. 

He said he ignores the continued presence of Confederate flags in the track’s infield each week, adding, “The only flags I see are green, white and checkered.

I think that goes back to my parents, teaching me at a young age to never see it as black and white. Everybody's equal. Everybody deserves the same opportunity, the same challenge. Everybody should live their lives to the fullest with no hassles, no hold‑backs, no matter what age (or) what color you are. We should have no barriers on what we want to do in life; no matter your color, your age, gender, disabilities, no matter what. It's something that should be taken care of. 

“I've hit a couple barriers growing up. There's definitely been some flak in the way. I would get the gestures and everything thrown out, (then) we'd show up the next weekend and win. That's how I was taught. My mom and dad always told me to block out the bad and take the good, use it as motivation.

“That's how I was raised, to ignore the stupidity, continue on and do what I need to do.”

Wallace said he spoke recently with the family of NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott, who broke NASCAR’s color barrier decades ago with 495 starts and a single win in NASCAR’s premier series.

“Wendell Scott, Jr. called me last night,” revealed Wallace. “He was so pumped up. He said he was helping me drive the car this weekend.  He was pumped up about… this opportunity. That's huge when you still have that connection with the family (who) continue to carry on a legacy that their father laid.”

Asked about his inability to attract full-time sponsorship in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, Wallace pointed to his won/loss record, rather than the color of his skin.

“Being honest, it's probably the win column,” he said. “There's not a day that goes by where I don't think about that. That's probably the biggest battle. You can look at (my wins in) Trucks, but that was three or four years ago. Now, it's a new year. Times have changed. We're winless (and) that may have something to do with it. I'm beating myself up over it,

“At the end of the day, it is one of the most demanding and grueling sports. Nobody loves finishing second. You want to get everything you can out of it, but sometimes it just doesn't work out. The sponsorship stuff, everybody's battling that. I just happen to be one of those guys.”

The Alabama native admitted he has no idea what his future holds, once Almirola is cleared to return to competition.

I can't really touch on that, because I don't know what's going to happen,” he said. “One thing I can touch on is I know I'll go out there and prove to everybody -- inside the racetrack, outside the racetrack, on TV -- that I belong in the Cup Series. I’ll do the best that I can, give an extra 200% each and every time I climb in the car for Ford, for Richard Petty, for everybody on the team (and) for Smithfield.

“There's no need for me to go out there and try to set the world on fire, trying to win races and putting myself in a tough spot,” he said. “If the opportunity presents itself, yeah, we'll jump on it. But there's no need for me to force a hole (and) end up tearing up a race car. I'm getting this opportunity because people believe in me and have seen my talents coming up. I have to go out there and back that up; show them I can manage and perform, and that I belong in the series.”

While admittedly feeling the pressure of his first MENCS opportunity. Wallace said he is also taking time to enjoy the moment.

“(Eventual Pocono winner) Ryan Blaney texted me this morning -- actually woke me up this morning-- and he wants a picture this weekend.  He was like, ‘We're driving the two most iconic cars in the sport this weekend. We definitely have to capitalize on that.

“(I am) the first African American since 2006. That's a lot of history. I've always said I like to let the results speak for themselves and… let the history fall in behind that. Not focus on the big spotlight, the African American side, the iconic number. Let all that funnel in after we have our good runs, get out there on the racetrack and show everybody we can do it.”

By the time Almirola returns, Wallace will rank second to Scott on a regrettably short, eight-man list of African American drivers to compete in NASCAR’s top series. But predictably, the Alabama native will remain focused on racing, rather than race.

“I think everybody wanted to see this opportunity happen,” he said. “NASCAR wanted to see it, I believe, for multiple reasons. And Ford has been a great supporter of mine for the last two years, going on three years now. This has been a pretty big couple of days for me. It's an exciting opportunity, not only for myself but my family, my fans… everybody that's helped me get to this level ever since I started racing when I was nine years old. 

“This is the perfect opportunity, so I'm very thankful for that. I've always said that God has had my plans in his hands. A new door has opened and we'll go out there and make the most of it.”

“I've been through 14 or 15 years of racing; a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “There's more downs than ups. That's what makes you stronger, keeps you hungry and coming back for more. It's been a lot of blood, sweat and tears; from not only myself, but everybody that's helped me out along the way. A lot of family sacrifices to get me here. Everybody has a different story of how they got to their ultimate level. 

“It's (going to be) cool in a couple years to look back on it and see how far we've come.”