"We raced together a lot, and our career paths were very similar," the three-time champion said Thursday in a statement released by Stewart-Haas Racing. "He loved racing, especially open-wheel racing, and that's a passion we both share. To not have him around to talk about whatever race one of us had just run, or were going to run, will be hard. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family, especially his son, Charlie, who Jason loved more than anything."
Leffler was killed Wednesday night in a racing accident at a sprint-car race at Bridgeport Speedway, a dirt track in Swedesboro, N.J. A fixture at NASCAR's national level since 1999, the 37-year-old native of Long Beach, Calif., raced for a number of teams over the course of his stock-car career. One of them was the organization that Stewart now co-owns, although it operated under a different name at the time.
It was Haas CNC Racing for whom Leffler competed during the 2003 and 2004 seasons in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and scored the first Nationwide Series victory of his career at Nashville Superspeedway. Stewart became part owner of the organization prior to the 2009 season, by which time the Nationwide program had been dropped. He hired as a teammate Ryan Newman, another driver who like Leffler had his roots in the dirt tracks of the U.S. Auto Club.
"Jason and I raced hard together," Newman said in a statement. "We never crashed, or even rubbed wheels. We weren't enemies, but we were never really friends, either. We were competitors. I respected him as much as he respected me. My prayers are for his family. He died doing what he loved. He was a real racer, and he will be missed."
Leffler won one other Nationwide race, in 2007 at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis for Braun Racing, which gave Toyota its first national-series victory in NASCAR. "We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of Jason Leffler," the manufacturer wrote on Twitter. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."
Although Leffler's career at NASCAR's premier level was often a struggle, the teams he worked with remember him fondly. Leffler was the first driver chosen for Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 11 team when that program debuted on a full-time basis in 2005. Although Leffler was released after just 19 races, much of that team remained together, laying the groundwork for the championship-contending program that would surface under current driver Denny Hamlin.
"Everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing is saddened to learn of the passing of Jason Leffler last night," Joe Gibbs said. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and especially to his son Charlie. We feel fortunate to have had him as part of both our Nationwide Series program and of course in the Cup Series where he helped us launch the No. 11 team with FedEx. NASCAR is unique in that it really is one large family and Jason was well liked by all that knew him. His loss will be felt across the entire sport."
Added Laurie Tucker, senior vice president of marketing at FedEx: "Everyone associated with our Joe Gibbs Racing sponsorship team is deeply saddened about the loss of Jason Leffler. He was an integral part of the formation of the No. 11 team at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2005 and our hearts and prayers go out to his family during this difficult time."
Leffler's first break at NASCAR's top level came in 2001, when he was hired to drive the No. 01 car for what is now Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Much like his car owner Chip Ganassi, Leffler was a former open-wheeler who had competed in the Indianapolis 500. Their partnership on the race track didn't last beyond that season, but their relationship endured.
"Jason was one of the first drivers that I employed when I came over to NASCAR in 2001," Ganassi said in a statement. "He was a tremendous guy, a great teammate, and absolutely loved racing. Our hearts go out to Jason's family. The racing community has lost a great ambassador."
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