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Leffler: Danica belongs with Nationwide regulars

August 25, 2011, Joe Menzer,

Racing full time will provide necessary experience needed to excel at faster pace

During more than a decade of off and mostly on racing in the Nationwide Series, Jason Leffler has been known mostly for his hair and a highly competitive nature.

"We have a lot of people in our series in the back of the field that probably shouldn't be there. She definitely belongs."


He's about to become known for something else.

Soon he'll be one of the Nationwide regulars competing on a weekly basis against Danica Patrick -- and he said he's just fine with that.

"I think it's great. She's proven herself as a race car driver," Leffler said. "Obviously everyone questions her some because of her gender. But she's a race car driver. She's run well at Indianapolis. She's won an IndyCar race. She's run well in everything she's been in. She's come in and I think she's run respectable.

"We've had guys come in like Dario Franchitti, who is an incredible race car driver. He came into NASCAR and he struggled his first few races. The Nationwide Series is so competitive, NASCAR in general is so competitive, that it's difficult for a driver form another series to come in and be successful right away. I think if she does this full time, she'll find some success."

Patrick announced Thursday what had long been anticipated -- that she'll run a full-time Nationwide schedule beginning in 2012 for JR Motorsports, as well as running eight to 10 Sprint Cup races next season for Stewart-Haas Racing. While there have been very vocal critics of Patrick -- TNT and SPEED TV race analyst Kyle Petty among them -- Leffler insisted that he and most of his fellow Nationwide regulars respect her and think she will do well.

Then again, Leffler has an ulterior motive to welcoming Patrick into the Nationwide garage on a full-time basis.

"The best thing about it for me is that I'm not going to be the shortest person in the garage now, once she's there. So that works out good for me," joked Leffler, who stands 5-foot-3.

Silencing the skeptics?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has long theorized that Patrick will improve as a stock-car driver the more she competes.

"It's very difficult for anyone to come in and drive in one of our series for three weeks, then be gone for six weeks or whatever, and then come back again," he said earlier this year. "You want to be there every week so you can build on the little successes you have. When you can't do that, sometimes it's like starting all over again every time you come back after being away from it."

Yet that is basically what Patrick attempted to do this year, driving part-time on the Nationwide circuit. In seven starts thus far -- weaved around her full-time IndyCar schedule -- she has posted three top-10 finishes that included a career-best fourth-place effort at Las Vegas.

Leffler said her efforts on the part-time basis this season have opened some previously skeptical eyes, although he insisted he was never one who owned a pair of them.

"I was never skeptical," he said. "We have a lot of people in our series in the back of the field that probably shouldn't be there. She definitely belongs. She's proven herself as a race-car driver. Anybody who runs as good as she does at Indianapolis, that's a tough race to run in those cars and you've got to have a good feel for it. Anytime you talk to her, she's all about racing. So I think it's great for Nationwide and great for the sport, and I think it's great for her, too.

"I think she'll enjoy our series and enjoy NASCAR. She'll get to race more this way. I don't know. It's going to be interesting. But she's definitely proven herself worthy of this opportunity."

The bottom line

Just how competitive can Patrick be? Can she survive with the big boys in her Sprint Cup starts? Being in top equipment from JR Motorsports, can she compete for a Nationwide championship right way -- or ever?

Leffler hedged his answers on those questions. But it's clear that he doesn't think too much should be expected too soon.

"To come in here and run week in and week out and be top five, you've got to be dedicated to this. I think if she's comes in and does this full time, she'll have a much better chance to be successful," he said.

"Anything can happen. Given time, I think she'll do well. Once she had some time on the track at Montreal, she did well. She's run well at Daytona and she's run well on some of the other ovals. So I look forward to racing with her full time, and will enjoy seeing her race."

Meanwhile, there is no question that Thursday's announcement was a marketing coup for NASCAR. This is what the governing body wanted all along.

Ultimately, it's what Patrick decided she wanted as well. Leffler said those in the Nationwide garage who have a problem with all the attention Patrick is getting and likely will continue to reap need a reality check.

"It's all good. Because when she brings exposure to the sport, she brings exposure to Great Clips and AccuDoc and all the sponsors we have on our team, and all the sponsors working with other teams," Leffler said. "It really helps everyone involved in this deal, so I think it's great. I think some people resent the fact that she gets all this attention -- but being a regular Nationwide driver, we're used to all the Cup guys getting all the attention anyway. So it's not going to bother us at all. I look forward to it."

Plus, perhaps he can entice Ms. Patrick to fashion her hair after his?

"Um, I don't think this would be a good look for her," he said.

As usual, he was right.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.