Leffler’s death hits Parnelli Jones hard

An emotional Parnelli Jones fondly recalled Jason Leffler’s rise from a volunteer in Jones’ race shop to a championship-caliber driver.

Leffler, a native of Long Beach, Calif., died Wednesday night from injuries suffered in a sprint car crash in New Jersey. The Delaware County (Pa.) medical examiner determined Leffler died from a blunt force neck injury. He was 37.

An avid Jones fan, Leffler considered the 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner his mentor dating back to his teenage years when he was working in the Torrance, Calif., shop alongside Jones’ sons, Page and PJ.

“Jason was one of the nicest, most positive people I have ever been around,” Jones said Friday by phone from California. “But that all changed when he got into a race car — his desire to succeed and do well, win was enormous. He was a competitor. He was a charger. Looking back now, he even had more fight and desire than I thought. Desire is a word that describes him well.”

Jones recalled Leffler’s father dropping him off at the race shop as a 13-year-old in the early morning so Leffler could learn how to work on midget cars.

“He’s still around working ’til 2 a.m. helping with anything and everything,” Jones said. “He loved racing and loved being in the shop with the boys. Jason was very close to our family for a long time — almost 25 years, and he was someone we grew up with and remained close to.”

Jones said Leffler had unhealthy eating and exercise habits when he first began racing, but eventually saw the error of his ways.

“He was in bad shape, he’d eat hamburgers and junk food and ‘fall out of the seat,’” Jones said. “But then he saw the benefits of working out and getting in shape to be a better driver and he sure wasn’t afraid to work to become a better driver, which he did. Jason paid his dues for sure.”

Leffler won four USAC Midget championships — three consecutive from 1997-99 — and eventually followed Tony Stewart’s path from sprint cars to IndyCar and then NASCAR. Leffler made 423 starts in NASCAR’s three national series, winning the two Nationwide races and one Truck Series event in a career that began in 1999. He also made three IndyCar Series starts, finishing 17th in the 2000 Indianapolis 500.

Leffler’s last full NASCAR season was 2011, when he ran the entire Nationwide schedule for Turner Motorsports. He finished sixth in the standings that season and hadn’t had a steady NASCAR ride since, which led to him running as many sprint car races as possible this year.

“He drove the wheels off of everything and was so fun to watch in a midget or sprint car,” Jones said. “Although he never found the success he wanted in Sprint Cup, Nationwide or the Truck Series, he always fought hard to be successful and always did his best in whatever car he was in that race or weekend. When he raced at Indianapolis in 2000 he was so proud to be part of the event. The 500 meant a lot to him — the track, the history of the event and the people involved.”

EDWARDS FASTEST IN MICHIGAN: In Brooklyn, Mich., Brad Keselowski was asked to pick one word to describe a lap at Michigan International Speedway.

“Fast,” the defending Sprint Cup champion said. “This is, to me, the fastest track we have — and it might be in speed, but it definitely is in feel.”

MIS is in its second year with a newly paved surface, and drivers are again making 200 mph laps look almost routine. Carl Edwards topped Sprint Cup qualifying Friday with a lap of 202.452 mph.

That run came a year after Marcos Ambrose won the pole at MIS at 203.241 mph — the first time since 1987 the 200 mph mark was broken during qualifying for NASCAR’s top series.

“The new track is super fun to race on,” Edwards said. “The pavement seems like it has aged more in a year than a lot of new track surfaces have, and hopefully we can keep developing a Goodyear tire and keep making it softer and softer to where it becomes the old Michigan here in a year or two. I think that is going to be awesome.”

IndyCar

MARCO ANDRETTI WINS POLE: In West Allis, Wis., Marco Andretti led a powerful Andretti Autosport rout Friday as all four drivers landed in the top five of qualifying at the Milwaukee Mile.

Andretti won the pole with a two-lap average speed of 170.515 mph around the mile oval. James Hinchcliffe was second at 170.418 for a 1-2 finish for the Andretti cars.

Will Power broke up an Andretti sweep by qualifying third at 170.212.

But Power was followed by defending race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay and E.J. Viso as the Andretti drivers proved they are the ones to beat Saturday in the 250-mile IndyCar race.

Sebastian Saavedra was sixth and Tony Kanaan was seventh as Chevrolet drivers swept the top seven spots.

Josef Newgarden was the highest qualifying Honda at eighth.

Andretti Autosport has won four of the last eight races at Milwaukee.