Idaytona Notebook:/I Leffler Adjusts

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - A year ago at this time, Jason Leffler thought he had the world at his fingertips.

He had just signed a deal to be the driver of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 01 Cingular Wireless Dodge to run for rookie-of-the-year honors in the Winston Cup Series in 2001 after only one year in the Busch Series, so his star seemed to be quickly on the rise.

He was racing in the most elite division in all of motorsports, he had a high-profile team owner who had a world of past success in the racing business, and he had a high-profile, enthusiastic sponsor that had just come into the sport.

What would make him think life could be any better?

Then, however, reality set in. His relative inexperience in stock cars began to hamper his and the team’s performance, and Leffler said he knew from the beginning that things weren’t all hunky dory in Ganassi Racing land.

The Cingular Wireless team was a back-of-the-pack team, and at times had problems qualifying for races. He wound up finishing 37th in the Winston Cup points standings, and by the end of the year, he was out of a ride.

“It never started off very good,” Leffler said. “The ball really never got rolling. You could tell right away that it wasn’t going to be a good situation. But you’ve got to sit there and keep trying your hardest to make the best of it and try to make it work.

“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing, but obviously I was inexperienced, and they couldn’t make up for my inexperience. Whatever reason that was, I can’t pinpoint it. But it didn’t work out, and that’s the way it goes. The one good thing is that I probably learned more last year about driving a race car than I had in all of my years combined. You’re racing with the best drivers in the country, with the biggest sponsors. We had more resources at the Winston Cup level than in any other series. From a performance standpoint, yeah, it wasn’t a very good year, but from a learning standpoint, it was an awesome year.”

Leffler said he had offers to stay at the Winston Cup level, but with under-funded teams. He didn’t want to re-live last season’s nightmare in 2002, however.

So, when Jim Smith came along and offered him a chance to drive the No. 2 Team ASE Dodge in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series – a truck that won five races the previous season with Scott Riggs and finished fifth in the points – Leffler jumped at the chance.

“I took a big step forward last year going from one year of Busch to Winston Cup,” Leffler said. “I had a great team in the Busch Series with Joe Gibbs Racing. Up until that point, I had never had any bad situations driving for people and always had great sponsors and great people around me. There was no reason to think the deal with Ganassi wouldn’t have been that way, too.

“But after last year, I needed to get back to the same type of people that had gotten me there as far as the commitment and will to win and the support. Team ASE is a great sponsor, and Jimmy Smith is a great owner. You can’t let that get by you. I knew the truck won races and they had great equipment, and everybody’s got the fire in their eyes here with this team. It’s just a great situation.”

It appears to be so far. Tuesday, in his first-ever qualifying attempt with Ultra Motorsports, Leffler qualified fifth for Saturday’s Florida Dodge Dealers 250 at Daytona International Speedway. His teammate, Ted Musgrave, won the pole.

NASCAR Responds to Simpson Suit
Bill Simpson filed his suit against NASCAR in Wednesday in Marion (Ind.) County Superior Court, accusing NASCAR of defamation of character and reckless disregard for the truth during the investigation into the death of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Simpson filed the $8.5 million suit against NASCAR, claiming the sanctioning body damaged his name and hiscompany’s name by saying the seatbelts used Earnhardt were faulty.

NASCAR responded to the suit Wednesday afternoon, not surprisingly defening itself.

"The Bill Simpson lawsuit is totally without merit,” the statement said. “We will virgorously defend ourselves against his false allegations. NASCAR will continue to focus its efforts on safety, working with the members of the NASCAR industry, including Simpson Performance Products, Inc."

Simpson has insisted the belts were improperly installed in Earnhardt’s car and would not have torn had they been mounted correctly. NASCAR’s months-long investigation blamed the seat-belt tear on a phenomenon called “dumping,” but neither blamed nor cleared Simpson’s company.

Sharp Grabs IROC Pole
Scott Sharp will start from the pole in Friday morning’s opening round of the 2002 International Race of Champions Series. Sharp earned the pole in a blind draw Wednesday, when the 12 drivers picked their car color and starting spot.

Sharp, who finished third in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series points standings last year, last raced in IROC in 1994, when he finished last in the overall standings.

“Since I’d done it before eight years ago, I thought when I came back it would feel a little bit comfortable,” Sharp said. “The first time I went down into Turn 1, I was like, ‘Whoa, I’ve got to turn this thing.’ There wasn’t much I remembered.”

World of Outlaw champion Danny Lasoski starts second and admitted he’s struggling with the switch to stock cars.

“I anticipate getting a lesson in aerodynamics,” Lasoski said. “I’ve been looking for the cushion since I’ve been here, and I can’t find it. (WoO car owner) Tony (Stewart) has definitely been a help.”

But if Lasoski pushes Stewart out of the draft, “he just won’t get any new tires that weekend,” Stewart said.

Winston Cup’s Sterling Marlin starts third in the 40-lap race Friday at 11:15 a.m. (ET), with Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves starting fourth. Kevin Harvick starts fifth, followed by Al Unser Jr., Buddy Lazier, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Stewart, Jack Sprague and Sam Hornish.

Burton’s Team Thrashes to Fix Crash Damage
Jeff Burton’s team worked until late in the night Tuesday to work on its damaged car, and then showed up at 6 a.m. Wednesday to finish the job. Burton’s car was wrecked during Tuesday’s second practice, and crew chief Frank Stoddard decided not to go to a backup car.

Stoddard said there were two reasons for that. First, the primary car was the fastest car they had. Second, NASCAR brought a new template for the rear decklid, and the primary car received most of the attention on the decklid.

“I don’t feel the other car is as competitive as this car will be, and the accident didn’t hurt the frame,” Stoddard said. “It was really just sheet-metal damage. When you’ve got some of the best in the business in the garage area, you fly them down. Now we’re ready to roll.”

Six crewmen were flown down on Jeff Burton’s private plane, arriving in Daytona three and a half hours after the crash. They were working Tuesday and didn’t have a chance to go home, so Stoddard gave them some money when they got to Daytona to buy some toothbrushes.

“That’s what racing is all about,” Stoddard said. “This is why we get into racing. This is why we all love to do it, for times like these. This is the most fun you could have.”

Kenseth On Track, For Now
All winter long, due to lack of sponsorship for his No. 17 machine, it's been a toss-up as to whether Matt Kenseth would be on the track at all in Busch Series competition in 2002.

And while Kenseth's status in the Busch Series is still up in the air for the most part, he will participate in at least two Busch Series races this season, with help from Jani-King. That company will sponsor Kenseth for Saturday's EAS/GNC Live Well 300 at Daytona, and for the April 6 O'Reilly 300 at Texas Motor Speedway.

A source close to Kenseth, however, said Wednesday they anticipated Kenseth to race in next week's Busch Series race at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, a track where Kenseth has enjoyed a great deal of success in the Busch Series.

At Least One More for Hornaday
Ron Hornaday is happy just to be driving Rick Hendrick's Chevy in this Friday's Craftsman Truck Series Florida Dodge Dealers 250 at DIS. After all, he is without a full-time driving job currently.

No matter what happens, however, Hornaday said Wednesday that he will be in that truck for at least one more race, the Darlington 200 at Darlington Raceway on March 15.

"The truck is already done and we're ready to go racing at Darlington," said Hornaday, who will be making his first truck series start at the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval. Hornaday drove two Busch Series races at Darlington in 2000 and two Winston Cup Series races there in 2001.

Ford Trucks Struggling, Too
The Ford struggles on the Winston Cup Series side at Daytona have been well-documented. But one look at the lineup for the Florida Dodge Dealers 250 will tell you that the F-150 trucks are having their problems in the Craftsman Truck Series, as well.

Jon Wood was the top qualifying Ford driver on Tuesday afternoon, putting his No. 50 Roush Racing machine in the 11th starting spot. Larry Gunselman (17th) and Terry Cook (20th) were the only other Ford drivers in the Top 20.

“I think we're at a little bit of disadvantage being a Ford,” Wood said. “We will race very good, and I’m confident in our drafting package. It’s an uphill battle to get NASCAR to consider a change when they think you’ll perform better in the draft and we haven’t even drafted yet. Hopefully, we can have a good showing for the U.S. Navy on Friday, but I’m happy finishing in the Top 15 today.”

Rick Crawford, who finished eighth in the CTS points chase last season, qualified 23rd on Tuesday.

“We need a little concession from NASCAR right now,” Crawford said. “There are Chevys and Dodges everywhere, and the Fords are running between 11th and 25th. NASCAR tells us that we can draft well, but I want to be leading the draft and I don't think we can lead the draft right now. We need a reduction in drag; we’re punching too big a hole in the air right now, and while we might draft well, that won’t allow us to take the lead on Friday.”

Four Ford drivers – Trent Owens, Ron Barfield, Morgan Shepherd and Jake Hobgood – failed to make the field for Friday’s race.

A Different Adventure
It was a whole new experience for Tim Fedewa Tuesday at Daytona. For the first time ever, Fedewa qualified for a Craftsman Truck Series race. He put his No. 99 Roush Racing Ford in the 22nd position.

Fedewa has been a longtime driver in the Busch Series, but bounced around from ride to ride last year after being released early in the season from the seat of the No. 66 Phillips 66 Chevy.

The deal with Roush is for one race, so his future is still up in the air.

“This is my first time qualifying one of these trucks, so I wasn't expecting too much,” Fedewa said. “ It was eventful, and I guess that’s good. I’m not happy with where we qualified, but we struggled the past two days in qualifying trim. I’ve worked these guys really hard the past two days just trying to get the truck comfortable, and we made a ton of progress. We made some changes and it got a lot better, so overall we’re in good shape for the race and that’s really my focus. That’s been my focus and that the whole team’s focus. My experience here at Daytona will come into play in the race on Friday when we start drafting. As long as the truck is comfortable, and I think we're close, we’ll be up front.”

Fedewa is hoping a good performance at Daytona will help bring in a sponsor for the No. 99 Ford so he can continue to race this year.

“This is a great team with a lot of experience and good equipment, and that’s something you want no matter what series you race in. They have the right stuff. Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch both ran these things and had terrific success, so this is flattering to me to even be here. Plus, I don't have a job right now and it would be helpful for my financial statement, as well.”

Petty On The Rules
Richard Petty knows all about NASCAR making rules changes in the middle of the season. Petty said the rules aren’t fair, but that’s nothing different.

“Never had been, and it sure ain’t this time,” Petty said.

What does NASCAR need to do?

“I don’t think there’s any one answer to that particular question,” Petty said. “NASCAR looks at it different than we as racers. NASCAR looks at it as a show: ‘We need to throw the checkered flag at the end of 500 miles, and have 40 cars side by side.’ We don’t look at it that way. We want to try to get the edge or get above everybody.

“This year, they’ve been jacking around with the rules just like what they do every year. It’s going to be good for somebody and it’s going to hurt somebody. There’s no way to make it even all the way across.”

Petty a Brawny Man
The sponsor of the No. 44 Petty Enterprises car, Georgia-Pacific, announced a partnership between its Brawny brand and the Pettys. Part of the deal includes a three-roll paper towel pack with Petty’s picture on it.

“This is me 30 years ago,” said Petty, pointing to the original “Brawny Man.” “All they did was finally update the picture.”

Brawny also introduced a new line of shop towels, napkins and a paint scheme that will be used on Buckshot Jones’ No. 44 Dodge in five races this year.

Leno Out Front
Pontiac announced Wednesday that celebrity comedian and motorsports enthusiast Jay Leno, host of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” will serve as the official pace car driver for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Leno will drive the pace-car version of the 2002 Collector Edition Firebird Trans Am as part of Pontiac’s ongoing celebration of the American muscle car icon during its last year of production.

Home Depot Pontiac driver Tony Stewart will help Leno prepare for his first driving experience at Daytona International Speedway.

“There’s definitely a unique thrill that only American muscle cars can deliver and Firebird is one of those classic cars that’s forever etched into American culture,” Leno said. “Driving in this car at a track as legendary as Daytona with Tony Stewart is an experience that I’m much looking forward to.”

In addition, the Pontiac Grand Prix has been tabbed as the “Official Pace Car of NASCAR” again in 2002. The Grand Prix is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

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