Leffler Joins Ganassi Now

It takes a lot of nerve to leave a championship operation like Joe Gibbs Racing, but nerve must be exactly what 24-year-old Jason Leffler has.

Leffler, who announced last week that he’d be leaving his Joe Gibbs-owned Busch Series ride in 2002 to race in the Winston Cup Series for Chip Ganassi Racing, announced today that he’s left the Gibbs team already and will move to the Ganassi ride for this season.

"I couldn't be happier to find a home with Chip Ganassi Racing and the talent that resides with the crew, not to mention having Chip and Felix (Sabates) as owners of this team," said Leffler, who signed a four-year deal. "I know I'll be provided all the support and resources from this team and sponsor Cingular Wireless to give it my all each and every race. I can't wait for Daytona."

With Leffler out of one of Gibbs’ two Busch Series cars, and lack of a sponsor for the other, the Gibbs team announced today that it’s one signed driver, Jeff Purvis, would be moving to the only sponsored car. The team will now search for a driver and sponsor for its second Busch entry.

Leffler, a former open-wheel standout who finished 20th in the Busch Series points standings last season as a rookie, all but baffled or angered members of a Gibbs team that was trying to build his future in the sport.

“It all happened so quickly,” said Steve de Souza, vice president of Busch operations for JGR. “We were developing Jason’s future here and putting a lot of effort into it.

“The first indication I received from Jason about this was after Christmas, around the first of the year. We didn’t have much chance to respond to it or ask many questions about it. We would have preferred to have first right of refusal in the matter, but they (Chip Ganassi Racing) didn’t come and talk to us. At that point, we just had to play the cards we were dealt.”

Winston Cup star Tony Stewart, who helped bring Leffler to the Gibbs team, said he’s not quite sure what to think of Leffler’s move.

“I did my part getting him here,” Stewart said, “but now, what he’s doing is evidently on his own.”

When he initially spoke with Leffler, de Souza said Leffler had told him he had signed with an agent that advised him to take the Ganassi deal. Ganassi recently announced a new sponsorship deal for his No. 01 Dodge, bringing Cingular Wireless - a joint venture between BellSouth Corp. and SBC Communications Inc - on board in a multiyear deal.

De Souza said JGR had no immediate plans to put Leffler into a Winston Cup car on a full-time basis, but that Leffler had been informed of intentions to have him run a few Winston Cup races this season.

“The biggest thing about it is that we were watching Jason develop and were bringing him along,” de Souza said. “That doesn’t mean there was guarantees out there for him to get into a Winston Cup car here at Joe Gibbs Racing soon. But if you look at most of the rookies out there in the Busch Series, we were about the only team who stuck with one and didn’t fire him this past season. That’s an indicator of the loyalty we had toward him.”

Purvis, who takes over the wheel of the No. 18 MBNA Pontiac, said of Leffler’s move: “I don’t know about the deal that he made… but my take on it is this: you can make or break your career pretty quickly with a step like that. There are a lot of young drivers doing that same thing, and they’re not all going to be heroes. Somebody is going to take the fall. It will be interesting to see what happens in his case.”

Bottomline for Ganassi is that he got the guy he wanted.

"Leffler is going to serve as an exciting part of our already stellar No. 01 Cingular Wireless team, and it should be a joy to watch this young star climb his way to the top," said Ganassi. "Joe Gibbs Racing gave Jason a great springboard to the big leagues, and we plan on elevating him to the status of NASCAR's best and brightest in a short period of time."

Moving Purvis over to the No. 18 MBNA car isn't the only move Gibbs made on Monday with his Busch program. Gibbs also announced the No. 4 Pontiac will change car numbers to No. 20 to match those of the JGR Winston Cup cars driven by Bobby Labonte (18) and Stewart (20).

Doug Richert, team manager for the Busch Series teams, will continue to serve as crew chief for Purvis. Tim Shutt, will serve as the crew chief for the No. 20 Pontiac. The team members from the No. 4 car will also move with Purvis to the No. 18, with the former No. 18 team members moving to the No. 20 team.

"Jeff Purvis will do an outstanding job for MBNA, and I'm confident we will find a talented driver and sponsor to build around for the No. 20 car," said Gibbs. "We believe both of our teams will be contenders in the NASCAR Busch Series for years to come."

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