Iracingone On One:/I Jason Leffler

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Admittedly, Jason Leffler “threw himself on the fire” this year, leaping into the NASCAR Winston Cup Series with only one year of stock-car experience under his belt. The driver of the No. 01 Cingular Wireless Dodge has had his ups and downs in his rookie season at NASCAR’s highest level, and he talks about leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to take on the task of driving for Chip Ganassi in 2001.

RacingOne:You’ve had some ups and downs this year. Is this the typical rookie season you were expecting, or has it thrown you a few more curves than you thought?

Leffler: It’s been really tough. You always think it will be easier than it is, but then reality sets it. This is a tough sport, and it’s a tough series. We’d like to be running a lot better. I know I certainly would be. For me, it’s just a matter of getting experience and having everything come together, and I believe that will begin to happen for us soon.

RacingOne: What’s been the biggest challenge for you so far?

Leffler: It’s really hard to pinpoint one thing. Things are so competitive here. Working with a new team has been very difficult at times. It took me all of last year, when I ran the Busch Series for Joe Gibbs Racing, to get to where I could finally be comfortable. Then I switched teams and series this year, so it’s thrown me all off again. When you’ve got time and you get used to the people that work with you, it’s really a big boost for you and your confidence.

RacingOne: Many people thought you might have left the Busch Series a bit too soon. Did you have any doubts yourself when you made the jump?

Leffler: Believe it or not, I certainly would have liked to have stayed in the Busch Series for another year. That was the plan, at least, not to come to this deal until 2002. The circumstances just worked out that I had to leave, so I left a year earlier than I thought I would. Chip Ganassi wanted me to come over here, so I just grabbed the opportunity. We knew that this year was going to be like a practice year for me. Not that we had low expectations coming in, but we knew there would be growing pains, and there certainly have been quite a few of those this year.

RacingOne: (Team manager) Andy Graves obviously has a lot of confidence of in you. Was he one of the biggest reasons you came over to Chip Ganassi Racing?

Leffler: Yeah, we’ve become pretty good friends over the years, and he knows racing very, very well. He’s probably THE biggest reason I came over here to Chip Ganassi Racing. A lot of people doubted my decision, but Andy never doubted it for a second. We figured once we get the experience, we might surprise a lot of people. With Chip’s involvement, Andy’s involvement and Tony Glover’s involvement, and with the resources we have to be successful, we will be eventually. Andy hasn’t wavered on that thought for a second, and that makes me feel great.

RacingOne: Not only has the team had to adjust to a Dodge this year, but as a rookie, you had to come in cold with it, too. Has that been just part of your difficulties this year?

Leffler: In reality, yeah, it has been, but it certainly has been a good decision for Chip to run the Dodges. For as new as the whole program is, it’s had a decent amount of success, winning a couple of races and a couple of pole positions. And things are going to do nothing but get better. Everybody had to adjust to it, just as much as I did. For me, I had to get used to driving a heavier race car than what I was used to. It was like learning to drive all over again.

RacingOne: You had a great second half in the Busch Series last year. That team really stepped things up and got into contention from week to week, didn’t it?

Leffler: It really did, and we had a great group of guys over there at Joe Gibbs Racing on the MBNA team. We hung together through a tough first part of the season and we just got better and better every week until we were contending to win races and poles every week. It reminded me a lot of what’s going on with this team. We started off slow, and my lack of experience hurt the team. But we all get along here really, really well and we keep working, digging to find that combination that will work for us so we can be a successful race team.

RacingOne: Coming up through the sprint car ranks, who were some of your racing heroes?

Leffler: I had a lot of heroes, including people I was able to have the pleasure of racing against. Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti were big heroes of mine. When I was racing quarter midgets as a kid, Jeff Gordon was the guy we all looked up to. Then, along came guys like Tony Stewart. When he moved up and was able to come over to Winston Cup, that gave us all something to look forward to, perhaps the chance to race in NASCAR some day.

RacingOne: You won a few midget championships in your time and won a Silver Crown title. That’s something you’ve got to be pretty proud of, isn’t it?

Leffler: Yeah, it was really good time. We had a really successful string going there, winning three midget titles in a row. We won a Silver Crown title in between, and there were a lot of big races we won. That’s what has made the Busch Series and the Winston Cup Series so humbling. I can certainly tell you this experience has made me a lot better driver than I was two or three years ago. You learn more about being a team player, and taking care of the people that work on your cars. You learn about patience, and taking care of your equipment.

RacingOne: It seemed like you were understandably upset when you didn’t get to race at Watkins Glen. How much do you think it’s going to hurt you down the road not getting that experience on a road course?

Leffler: You just have to keep going. It was the boss’s decision not to race there at Watkins Glen, and I definitely think that will hurt me down the road because I need some experience on those road courses. I didn’t get it at either Watkins Glen or Sears Point this year. This year was a year to get me experience and to build on the future. But, that’s the way it goes. It’s like anything else. I believe if I can get the experience on the road courses, there’s no doubt I could run up front there.

RacingOne: Chip Ganassi has gotten a reputation over the years for being pretty demanding as a team owner. How has he been with you?

Leffler: He’s been pretty good to me. We’d all like to be running better, and he knows that. We all give 100 percent, and he doesn’t demand too much more than that. He wants to run up front, but we just haven’t been able to find the right combination to do that this year. I’ve got the tools to do it with. My team knows what I like in a race car. Our finishes don’t reflect how well we’ve run at times. The team sees that, and that keeps us pumped up from week to week.

RacingOne: Cingular has signed on with another team for next year? How’s the sponsorship search going for next year, and has Chip given you a vote of confidence for 2002?

Leffler: Chip has told us not to worry about the sponsor, that’s his department. He just tells us to worry about making the car go fast. We’re obviously disappointed with Cingular and the fact that they’re not going with us next year, but we’re glad they did get involved with us and we’ve had a good relationship with them. Everything looks pretty good for next year, Chip says. Obviously with what’s happened in the country over the past few weeks, sponsorships haven’t been on a lot of people’s minds, but we’re hoping we can have a new sponsor in the fold by the time the year’s over with.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2001

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