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NASCAR heads to Michigan, mourns loss of Jason Leffler


1. Reflecting on Jason Leffler, forever a hard charger
News of Jason Leffler’s death after a New Jersey sprint car crash ran fast, far and wide this week. His passing is, as it too often becomes, a startling reminder that race car drivers don’t compete in an arena like most other athletes.

Racing isn’t just entertainment. It’s a way of life — an often difficult one — for those who pursue it. For every NASCAR national series driver traveling by jet and racing in front of tens of thousands, there are hundreds of others hopefully scraping enough dollars together for new tires every few races or working through the night to make repairs from the last time out.

They do it for the thrill of a well-executed pass, or to feel the joy of victory lane one more time. They do it for the speed, for the rush and for the adventure that’s forever locked inside the walled confines of a racetrack only available to those who work hard enough to enter. It’s an event of open participation, but an experience only a select few ever try.

I didn’t know Jason Leffler, and I never interviewed him. I won’t pretend to know what motivated him to slide in a race car for the first time so long ago, or know what he was seeking from racing Wednesday night at Bridgeport Speedway in an event that paid $7,000 to win. I just know that Jason Leffler was a race car driver in the purest sense with a style both brash and unbounded.

He pushed limits and occasionally stepped over them. He was unflinchingly aggressive when a gap opened — often to a fault — and was more than willing to seek retribution against a driver who had done him wrong. If Jason Leffler was in a race, you more than likely knew it regardless if he was first or 25th.

It all combined to produce in Leffler the status and goal every racer wishes to achieve: Winner.

Leffler didn’t win as often as he liked — no driver ever does — but he was a four-time champion in the USAC ranks in midget and silver crown cars. He started the Indianapolis 500 and he did score trips to victory lane in both the Nationwide Series and NASCAR’s truck series.

It was after his second and final Nationwide Series race win in 2007 at the former Indianapolis Raceway Park that perhaps told us all we need to know about why Leffler spent the majority of his life scrambling across the country to jump behind a steering wheel. Leffler, who had just beat Greg Biffle and David Reutimann using his standard strong-nosed tactics, went through the usual gratuitous crew and sponsor acknowledgements in the post-race interview before he paused, looked directly to the ESPN interviewer and shouted.

“I’m happy!”

Jason Leffler loved his life of racing. And he especially loved the winning. It’s terribly unfortunate and greatly saddening that he lost his life in that continued pursuit. But it’s also comforting knowing that Leffler — at least occasionally — had found what he was chasing.

2. Anniversary brings talk of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
You may have read Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Michigan International Speedway last June. You may have heard that Sunday’s race is the one-year anniversary of Earnhardt’s last win. You may have also heard that the confluence of that event with Earnhardt’s great run at Pocono Raceway last week have made him a good pick for Sunday’s race.

While picking a race winner is often a trivial pursuit (unless you’re picking Jimmie Johnson every week), there are a lot of signs that Earnhardt should have a good car Sunday in Michigan.

Consider that Earnhardt had a top-10 finish at Auto Club Speedway earlier this season. Consider that he’s typically been strong on the tracks similar to Michigan this year. And consider that Earnhardt feels his car is measuring closer to the performance of the No. 48.

“I looked through the notes from last year, and we didn’t unload perfect. We had to work to get it right,” Earnhardt said. “You don’t go in with confidence that you are going to go there and it will be perfect. You have the confidence to know that we will get it dialed in.”

A win last year is certainly no guarantee of success for Earnhardt. But to come back to a track as a defending race winner riding the wave of confidence from recent good runs is a great start to a solid weekend.

3. Ride swaps on tap for Allmendinger, Labonte
Bobby Labonte has become an afterthought in the Sprint Cup Series in recent seasons. After filling the seat vacated by Marcos Ambrose in the JTG-Daughtery No. 47 in 2011, Labonte has just four top 10s to his name. None of those have come in 2013 for the 2000 series champion, and the team apparently is losing some patience with the direction to this point.

As a result, AJ Allmendinger was hired to drive the No. 47 Sunday at Michigan in an attempt to perhaps find some solutions to speed and handling issues in the Gen-6 car. Sunday’s event is the first of five races Allmendinger will drive for the team over the course of the season.

Meanwhile, Labonte will preserve his 702-race consecutive starts streak by jumping in the ever-rotating seat of James Finch’s No. 51.

While it’s not certain that this driver switch for the No. 47 officially opens the NASCAR silly season of driver and team changes, it’s not often that one driver takes over another driver’s ride for performance reasons — even if temporarily — without some larger adjustment down the road.