NASCAR drivers pay tribute to Leffler

DEARBORN, Mich. -- Jason Leffler was frustrated with having to start-and-park to remain a part of NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, so he returned to the world of dirt tracks and sprint cars to recapture the love of competition.

On Wednesday night, he was killed doing what he loved most.

Leffler, 37, died from blunt-force injuries to the neck according to the medical examiner in an accident during a heat race in the 410 Sprints division at Bridgeport Speedway in Swedesboro, N.J. He is survived by his 5-year-old son, Charlie Dean.

"He was such a racer," Shane Hmiel, paralyzed in 2010 driving a Silver Crown car similar to the car Leffler drove, told ESPN.com on Thursday. "He said he didn't want to start-and-park anymore. He said 'It tears my heart out.' Shoot, man. It's what killed him.

"But it's what he woke up for every morning next to his son."

The medical examiner at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, where the driver nicknamed "Leftturn" was pronounced dead shortly after 9 p.m., said the cause of death was blunt force neck injury.

Leffler's car rolled multiple times after striking a wall at the 0.625-mile dirt track that does not have SAFER barriers found in NASCAR's top three series around 8:30 p.m. New Jersey state police are investigating to determine the exact cause of the death.

Those close to Leffler know he died doing what he wanted to.

"He was there because that's what he really enjoyed," said Leffler's ex-father-in-law, Bob East, who builds sprint cars like the one Leffler drove.

"Basically, he was tired of start-and-park in NASCAR. Racing is what he really loved to do, and that's what he did."

Leffler was a star in sprint cars. He won four United States Auto Club championships and in 2003 was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

He returned to his roots with his NASCAR career reduced to low-budget teams that relied on driving a handful of laps and parking to collect a paycheck.

On Wednesday, three days after driving only eight laps in the Cup race at Pocono Raceway for Humphrey Smith Motorsports, he entered in a sprint car race that paid $7,000 to the winner.

"We talked about it," Humphrey Smith Motorsports co-owner Mark Smith said of starting and parking. "We knew he wouldn't like that idea. The true racer he is, it's tough for those guys to do that. Very frustrating."

Leffler wanted to be a star in NASCAR. He made 423 starts between the sport's three national series, winning two Nationwide races and one Truck event.

But the talent that shined in sprint cars never translated to stock cars. His best opportunity came in 2005 when Joe Gibbs Racing expanded to three cars and put him into the No. 11 FedEx car. But 21 races in, with an average finish of 27.5 and a DNF in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Leffler was released.

He spent most of the next six years in the Nationwide Series, winning a race in 2007 and finishing third in points.

But that never turned into another top Cup ride, forcing Leffler to look elsewhere to satisfy his competitive nature. Sprint cars did that.

"I've raced a lot of dirt in my life," Leffler told Motor Racing Network's "Winged Nation" in February. "I figured if you're going to race sprint cars it better be a wing car because you can do it all over the country.

"I couldn't really get anything going in NASCAR that was competitive. That start-and-park deal is not for me. I had a good run there for over a decade, so it's time to get back racing. I'm pretty excited for this year."

Hmiel felt that excitement as Leffler drove for him in the USAC National Midget Series last Thanksgiving.

"He had done some start-and-parking," Hmiel said. "There was quite a bit of money to be made in that, but he said that wasn't real racing to him. He said he wanted to go win these sprint car races.

"He was a driven fella. He wasn't the kind of driver that just showed up. He wanted to do it all."

Hmiel said Leffler was big on safety, that he wouldn't drive for just anybody and he would get upset if somebody besides him worked on the car because he wanted to make sure it was right.

"It must have been a really hard accident for him to be injured like that," said Hmiel, who heard the news as his team left a race in Indianapolis.

Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the USAC series rookie of the year in 2007 in the sprint car and midget car series, also sensed Leffler's frustration with start-and-parking.

"Anybody that loves racing as much as he does would be frustrated by that," Stenhouse said from Ford's world headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., where he is preparing for Sunday's Cup race at Michigan International Speedway. "I do know this year he was having a lot of fun going back and racing sprint cars every weekend. He probably already had 40 races in him this year.

"That's what he loved to do. Just tough to see anything like that happen."

Stenhouse befriended Leffler when he came to stock cars because Leffler related to the transition he was undergoing and because he was easy to talk to.

Most referred to Leffler as a driver without any enemies, a great competitor and fun to be around off the track.

That Leffler never made it in Cup and had to look to sprint cars to compete, reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski said is "just a nasty reality of the sport."

"This sport has a way of being really, really mean sometimes," Keselowski said from the Ford fan event.

But not all drivers return to that series because they have to. Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart races sprint cars more than some regulars and is scheduled for an event in early July. Kasey Kahne also runs sprint cars and owns his own team.

Stenhouse doesn't blame the sport. He also doesn't blame safety, even though local tracks such as Bridgeport don't have SAFER barriers and other safety devices found in NASCAR. Stenhouse said sprint cars for the most part are as safe as they have been in years with breakaway parts designed to soften the impact on collisions.

He also acknowledged there are inherent dangers driving the high-powered sprint car compared to a stock car with the open cockpit and lack of SAFER barriers that local tracks can't afford.

"They're rougher for sure than a stock car just because you're barrel-rolling, flipping end over end," he said of sprint car crashes. "There's normally no easy crash. A stock car, you hit [the wall once] and that's about it.

"For us in a sprint car, when you hit, you generally hit three or four times. The parts give in, but then there's nothing else to give."

Chris Taitt, a spectator at Bridgeport Speedway, told the Associated Press he was at the race but looking the other way when the crash occurred. He said Leffler had been in second place, apart from other cars when his car slammed into a wall at the track's fourth turn.

Taitt, 40, of West Deptford, said the wing on the car was "flattened like a pancake," and the seat appeared to be displaced.

Bridgeport is billed as the "Fastest Dirt Track in the East." According to the track website, it has a two-tiered guard rail along the outside of the speedway, as well as a concrete wall located on the inside of the corners to "provide drivers and fans with an ideal safety environment."

But as Carl Edwards reminded, there are no guarantees.

"Racing is dangerous ... in general, anything you race," he said during the Ford event.

Edwards struggled to discuss Leffler's wreck because the death of any driver at any level is mourned by the entire racing community. This one stung more for the Roush Fenway Racing driver because he was a fan of Leffler on the USAC level, recalling the passion he once saw when Leffler tackled a driver in the mud after a big crash.

"It was like, 'He wants to win. He wants to race,'" Edwards said. "So I just hope however that race was going he was having fun and he was competitive."

Those that knew Leffler said he was having more fun than he's had in years, but that doesn't ease the pain of what happened.

"Today sucks," Hmiel said. "Yesterday sucks. But Jason wanted to keep on going. He made sure his cars went as fast as they could. That's what Jason Leffler was all about ... winning races."