NASCAR & Auto Racing

Leffler, Toyota team aim high

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jason Leffler doesn’t want to be the best with an explanation. He just wants to be the best.

Leffler, who finished a career-best third and gave Toyota its first win in the Busch Series last season, has been touted as a driver who can contend with such Cup Series veterans as reigning series champion Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer, who are also competing in what is now the Nationwide Series.

But Leffler, who begins his third full season with Braun Racing, isn’t interested in just competing with the Cup drivers and their teams, he’s more interested in beating them.

“We concentrate on winning races and running up front. We don’t play into being the top Nationwide-only team. We feel like we can beat all the Cup teams,” said Leffler.

“We operate at 100 percent and we can be competitive week-in and week-out.”

Leffler’s finish last season was his best in any of NASCAR’s top three series since his debut in 1999. Not coincidentally, it was also the first time Leffler had driven full, consecutive seasons with the same team.

He ended the 2007 season with a win at O’Reilly Raceway Park, two poles, seven top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 35 races. That bodes well as the 2008 season gets under way with Saturday’s Camping World 300 at Daytona International Speedway (1 p.m., ESPN2).

Yet Braun Racing isn’t taking any chances. Along with experience and continuity with his team, Leffler has added a new crew chief, veteran Stewart Cooper, this season.

“I can already see the improvements in the team. Stewart has been around the garage for a long time. He’s done a really, really good job during the winter to get everything organized and on the right track for the new season,” said Leffler, who consistently ran among the fastest laps at preseason testing at Daytona, Las Vegas and California.

“So far, it’s all going good. To contend for the championship, we just need to find some consistency, and I think having Stewart Cooper on board is really going to help that.”

In addition, Braun has added additional sponsorship and plans to field one or two additional cars throughout the season in select races with Cup drivers Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin from Joe Gibbs Racing and Brian Vickers from Team Red Bull.

“I want to thank Joe Gibbs Racing and Red Bull Racing for allowing us to include their drivers this season,” said team owner Todd Braun. “We’re excited about the possibilities it will bring.”

Braun Racing will also see some more friendly faces in the series as four teams will campaign six full-time Toyota teams this season, doubling the manufacturer's car count over 2007.

“Getting Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing together is a win-win for everybody. It’s certainly good for Toyota, and certainly good for JGR,” Leffler said.

“Any information that trickles down through Toyota Racing Development will help everybody. It will also help from a morale standpoint.”

While Leffler has found stability both on and off the track – he and wife, Alison, welcomed son Charlie in August – he still remains hopeful he’ll get another chance to prove his ability at the Cup level.

“I’ve had my shot at Cup a couple of times and haven’t run competitively. I’ve come back to the Nationwide Series and Truck Series and run competitively and, hopefully, I’ll get another shot,” said Leffler.

“Whatever series you are in you want to move to the top. I feel like my career won’t be complete unless I win a Cup race.”