by Nate Ryan and Jeff Gluck, USA TODAY Sports
Jason Leffler, a versatile driver who won championships in open-wheel divisions and attempted at least one full season in each of NASCAR's three national series, died Wednesday night after a crash in a 410 sprint car race at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey.
Leffler, 37, was pronounced dead shortly after 9 p.m., the New Jersey State Police said. Sgt. Adam Grossman told USA TODAY Sports that Leffler had to be extricated from the car after striking a wall around 8:30 p.m. He was transported to Crozer-Chester Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
He was running in second place in the first heat race of the program at the 0.625-mile, high-banked dirt oval when his car flipped several times on the front straightaway, according to eyewitness Chris Taitt, 40, of West Deptford, N.J. Taitt said Leffler's car hit the wall twice and "then it was flopping all over."
After state police arrived on the scene, the track announced the rest of the races had been canceled.
Leffler made 73 starts in the Sprint Cup Series, finishing last in his final event after completing eight laps Sunday at Pocono Raceway. He won twice in the Nationwide Series and once in the Camping World Truck Series.
The Long Beach, Calif., native, who was affectionately known as "lefTurn" and had the nickname stenciled above his driver's side window, leaves behind a 5-year-old son, Charlie.
Leffler started his career as an open-wheel star who won three consecutive USAC Midget championships from 1997-99. Following the path of former USAC star Tony Stewart, he signed with Joe Gibbs Racing for the Nationwide Series in 2000.
After finishing 20th in points with three pole positions and four top 10s in his rookie season, Leffler moved into NASCAR's premier Cup Series with Chip Ganassi Racing. He lasted only one year after failing to qualify for five of 36 races in 2001.
Leffler moved to the Camping World Truck Series for two years, scoring his first NASCAR national series victory at Dover International Speedway in 2003. He began dabbling in Cup again, making 10 starts for Haas CNC Racing that season.
In 2004, he earned his first Nationwide Series win and scored 17 top 10s in 27 starts with Haas CNC.
That earned him his second shot at Cup in 2005 as Joe Gibbs Racing expanded to a third car with FedEx sponsorship. Leffler, though, didn't last the season, being fired by the team after 21 races when he was ranked 35th in points and had failed to qualify for the Coca-Cola 600. Denny Hamlin took over the No. 11 car late in the season.
Leffler raced full time in Nationwide from 2006-11, earning his final national series win at Indianapolis Raceway Park in 2007 when he finished a career-high third in points.
He made 11 starts in Sprint Cup over the past six seasons.
A statement from NASCAR said the sanctioning body "extends its thoughts, prayers and deepest sympathies to the family of Jason Leffler who passed away earlier this evening. For more than a decade, Jason was a fierce competitor in our sport and he will be missed."
"We are very saddened at the passing of Jason Leffler," Indianapolis Motor Speedway chief operating officer Doug Boles said in a statement. "He was one of the most versatile race drivers in America, showing his talent by competing in the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400. Jason was a terrific guy who always had time for everyone. Our deepest sympathies are extended to his entire family, team and fans."
Leffler raced in the Indianapolis 500 in 2000 and the Brickyard 400 in 2001, 2003-05 and '08.
USA Today / Gannett