C. JEMAL HORTON
CORNELIUS, N.C. (AP) -- The funeral service for NASCAR driver Jason Leffler drew Sprint Cup stars Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski among the more than 800 people who filled Grace Covenant Church on Wednesday.
The 37-year-old Leffler, known by the nickname "LEFturn," died a week ago when his sprint car crashed into a wall at a New Jersey dirt track.
The hour-long service detailed Leffler's passion for racing and his achievements on open-wheel and NASCAR tracks. Friends and colleagues, however, spent much of the funeral focusing on Leffler's evolution as a father to his 5-year-old son, Charlie Dean.
"Jason was, by far, the best dad in our small world down here," said Jeff Dickerson, of Spires Sports and Entertainment, which represented Leffler. "He started to display a more sensitive side that inspired me to be a better father.
"We will have a responsibility in helping his son know who he was and how much he cared for his son. We have to let him know about his dad as a racer and a man."
No coffin was present during the service, which also was attended by NASCAR President Mike Helton, team owner Chip Ganassi, and Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs. Other Sprint Cup drivers at the service included Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and David Stremme.
Stenhouse Jr. and Kahne were close to Leffler from their days in sprint car racing, and Kahne had Dale Earnhardt Jr. fill in for him at Thursday's testing in Atlanta so he could attend the funeral.
Also present were Nationwide drivers Reed Sorenson, Mike Bliss, Kyle Larson, Michael Annett, Steve Wallace, Landon Cassill and Josh Wise, as well as Shane Hmiel, a former NASCAR driver who was paralyzed in qualifying for a USAC Silver Crown race.
As Dickerson spoke, photos of Leffler and his son at the race track flashed on two large projection screens.
The front of the church's sanctuary was lined with flowers from well-wishers, along with photos and mementos from Leffler's career, including his racing gloves and some helmets still covered with dirt and debris.
None of the drivers or NASCAR officials spoke during the service, but a Spires Sports representative highlighted the need to look after Charlie.
"On behalf of everyone that loved Jason, and his family, we thank everybody for coming out with their support today," Jessica Schaak said. "We just ask that everyone keep Charlie in their prayers."
A memorial fund has been set up for Charlie, whom friends said changed Leffler for the better.
"I saw his transformation from Jason the driver to Jason the dad," said Todd Braun, former owner of Braun Racing, one of Leffler's former teams . "I never saw more of a transformation of a person than I saw in Jason."
There were plenty of tears, but reminisces about Leffler's wild side also drew laughs.
Kenny Crosswhite, who works as a spiritual adviser in the sport, recalled the day he told Leffler that the name Jason means "healer" in Greek.
"He said, 'That's OK, as long as I can wound people first,'" Crosswhite said, prompting laughter from the crowd. "Jason was wonderfully made. He was unique in so many ways."
Dickerson said he and Leffler had many conversations about death. He was proud that Leffler made the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2003 and was still participating in the sport that he loved.
"I'm sure most people in here will say this is exactly how Jason wanted to go, and that makes it a little easier to handle," Dickerson said. "But the fact of the matter is, he wasn't ready to go yet. He was having the time of his life racing these cars."
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