The news of Jason Leffler being killed in a sprint car crash was on the minds of NASCAR drivers Friday at Michigan International Speedway. The 37-year-old died Wednesday when an apparent parts failure caused him to crash into the Turn 4 wall at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey.
Tony Stewart was just one of many drivers who had a close relationship with Leffler as the two were more than just competitors in various disciplines including NASCAR, but also roommates and teammates.
"I've known Jason a long time," Stewart said Friday. "We grew up racing together and went the same path racing-wise ... He loved nothing more than being behind the wheel of a racecar and I was shocked to hear what had happened.
"It's a reminder of how dangerous our sport is. It's proof that they may never get to the stage that somebody can't get hurt in a race car. There isn't anybody that gets behind the wheel that doesn't understand that. Jason knew that. He loved doing what he was doing."
Another driver still in disbelief is Jimmie Johnson, who remembers meeting Leffler in the early 90s at an off-road truck race in Arizona. The pair would form a friendship that would carry on as both moved onto NASCAR.
"I lost a friend and our sport lost somebody that really was involved and loved this sport and made it his life," Johnson said. "We're all going to miss him terribly. I certainly think of his family. I think of his little boy, Charlie. It's just a sad, sad time."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. fondly recalled Leffler's Nationwide Series victory in 2007, too, which occurred at the track now known as Lucas Oil Raceway. The win on the Indianapolis short track was his last in NASCAR competition.
"I will remember the pass he made to win at (LOR) when he basically just sold the farm down in (turns) one and two to make that pass," Earnhardt said. "It was a really aggressive move, but that was a hungry driver."
While admitting his relationship with Leffler wasn't as close as others, Earnhardt praised Leffler for his tenacity. He admired the way he continued to pursue a career in racing despite a lack of success in NASCAR's premiere series.
"He liked to race," Earnhardt said. "You always heard about the guy running here and running there. He had ups and downs in the top-tier series as far as the Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, but he didn't seem to let that deter him from doing what he liked to do. If he could be racing somewhere, he was there racing."
That Leffler's death occurred at small track without the safety features commonly seen in NASCAR has raised questions. Most small facilities throughout the country don't have SAFER barriers and don't possess the capital needed to add the padded walls that lessen the impact on the driver.
This is one reason that Brad Keselowski, unlike Stewart and many other drivers, often doesn't moonlight in non-NASCAR sanctioned races at smaller venues.
"I don't run those races for a reason," Keselowski said. "There are a handful of drivers that run at the local level. I don't very often. I'm not gonna say I never have, but I don't very often because they don't have SAFER barriers and they don't have the safety standards that we have here in NASCAR."
"Obviously, it's not a simple issue. They have funding limitations that kind of plague that level, but I'm nervous for anyone that races at those levels because I know what happens if something goes wrong and those safety standards aren't there."
The topic of safety at short tracks is an issue Stewart knows all too well. Not only does he barnstorm to compete on small tracks multiple times a week, but he is also a track operator as well.
Stewart disagrees with Keselowski's viewpoint, saying safety standards at local tracks are "the best they've been" while also acknowledging that track owners are handcuffed by financial restraints.
"Cut them slack," Stewart said defending short track owners. "Nobody wants to go through what happened this past week ... The safety standards weren't what caused (Leffler's accident)."