Leffler Travels Rocky Road

Chip Ganassi Racing team manager Andy Graves isn’t about to make any apologies for the performance of rookie Jason Leffler and the No. 01 Cingular Wireless Services Dodge team.

With a driver who had only one year of previous stock-car experience, Graves said he knew the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season would be a rocky one early on for Leffler, who signed a three-year contract with Ganassi in December.

Indeed, it has been a rocky ride for the 25-year-old California native. And he’s had a quite a few boulders to sidestep so far in trying to continually gather knowledge about Winston Cup racing in his initial campaign.

“He’s still got a lot to learn,” Graves said of Leffler, who spent the 2000 season in the Busch Series with Joe Gibbs Racing after a solid career in the open-wheel ranks. “He’s got a ways to go, there’s no secret about that, and we made no bones about that when we hired him to drive the 01 car.

“But I will say this – we’re really happy with the progress Jason’s been making. We knew it was going to take him a while to adjust to his situation. He had only one year in stock cars last year, and that was in the Busch Series.

“We felt like he did an admirable job there and that’s why we hired him. In the races he’s been able to qualify for, he’s gotten a chance to run and he’s made great improvements. We believe he’s got a bright future in this sport.”

Leffler said he realizes he’s short on experience, and is going to make the most out of his rookie season.

“I wasn’t supposed to drive Winston Cup this season,” Leffler said. “I was going to get in another year on the Busch circuit, but things didn’t work out. This is going to be a learning year for me in Winston Cup. This time next year, I’ll be better off with a year of Winston Cup racing under my belt. I wish I could have driven another season in Busch, but this is a great deal, and I’m glad things worked out like they did.”

Leffler’s team has already undergone a huge transition this season. Last week, Matt Chambers, who helped Kurt Busch win rookie-of-the-year honors in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2000, was hired to replace Kevin Cram as crew chief after Cram and the team parted ways.

Leffler is currently 39th in the Winston Cup points standings and fifth in the chase for the Rookie of the Year Award. He’s missed qualifying for two of the first nine races of the season, both at short tracks (Bristol and Martinsville).

Neither of those two setbacks sat well with Leffler.

“Jason’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever been around,” Graves said. “He was pretty upset after missing Bristol and Martinsville, and yeah, he’d sit around and pout for a day or two afterward. None of us wants to miss races, least of all Jason. But we knew coming into Bristol and Martinsville that they were going to be two of our toughest places to qualify.

“I’m not going to say we expected to miss the races, but we did expect to have problems at both of those tracks. It’s all just timing and experience, and that’s going to come for Jason. He’ll get there.”

“It was very disappointing not qualifying for those two races, but we just kept digging,” Leffler said. “You can’t get down on yourself. We’ve got a solid team. Chip Ganassi is a great owner and Andy Graves is a great guy to work with, too.

“He’s the main reason I took this deal. He’s hard on me at times, but he’s trying to push me to the next level. I don’t need someone patting me on the back all the time. Andy is a performance-type guy, and I am, too. We’re going to keep improving, and we’re going to keep pushing each other.”

In recent weeks, Leffler hasn’t faired too badly on the larger tracks. His best result this season was a 17th-place finish at Texas in early April, and he rebounded from the Martinsville debacle by finishing 20th in the Talladega 500 on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Leffler actually ran from 10th to 20th for a great portion of last Sunday’s race. He was doing the same at Daytona before he got involved in the “big wreck” and wound up finishing a disappointing 33rd.

“Talladega was just a typical (restrictor) plate race,” Leffler said. “There was a lot of action, but nothing really stood out. I’d get up front, but I couldn’t ever really get any help. That’s just part of being a rookie.

“(Teammate) Sterling (Marlin) was running well on the bottom of the track, but my car wouldn’t work well on the bottom. I couldn’t hook up with him to draft. The new rules really hurt us in the race. It didn’t show up too much in qualifying, but it did in the race.”

This weekend, Leffler will have another opportunity to show what he can do on a superspeedway. The Winston Cup Series heads to Fontana, Calif., and the 2-mile California Speedway, the site of Sunday’s NAPA Auto Parts 500.

It’ll also give the Long Beach native a chance to strut his stuff in front of the home folks. Last year, Leffler was involved in an accident and finished 39th in the Busch Series event at California, his only career start there.

“We were running pretty well in that race before we got in the wreck,” Leffler said. “That was the first race I thought I really had a handle on the car. We were up close to the Top 10 when we had trouble, but I’m really looking forward to going back.

“Matt (Chambers) will be working with Andy (Graves) and the guys out there. Matt and I got along real well for the first time Sunday at Talladega. He works well with Andy, and that’s going to be a good combination. It’s going to be like a homecoming for me, so I’m really excited about this weekend.”

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