- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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While Robert Yates Racing struggles to turn its Nextel Cup program around, Stephen Leicht quietly goes about his business in the Busch Series. Pegged as the team's driver of the future, expectations are high that the 20-year-old has what it takes to succeed.
At the same time, I think it's almost to the point now where I need to get out there and get a little more physical and be a little more aggressive than I have been.
So far this season, the results have been less than stellar. Still, he's already showing signs of improvement from last year and that's a step in the right direction. Heading into Saturday's Dover 200 at Dover International Speedway, Leicht's finished all but one of the 13 races and sits 16th in points.
On the downside, he's ended up on the lead lap just twice, including last week's Carquest Auto Parts 300 at Charlotte, when he came home 10th, his second top-10 of the season. Leicht was eighth at Nashville in April, one of the rare races when Cup drivers didn't dominate the field.
Runs like last week's demonstrate what the team saw in Leicht, now it's just a matter of finding more consistency, the quest for every driver whether a 20-year-old starting out or a 40-year-old veteran looking to extend his career.
And while the results aren't stellar, Leicht said he thinks things are coming together.
"I think as far as respect goes, I've earned a lot of the respect from the Cup drivers and Busch regulars that have been here for a while," Leicht said. "At the same time, I think it's almost to the point now where I need to get out there and get a little more physical and be a little more aggressive than I have been.
"The only problem with that is every time we seem to be running good and then I back off of that aggressiveness to make sure we get a good points finish, that's when something goes wrong. It's like, how do you find that happy medium? I don't know. We're just gonna have to try something new and see what happens."
He'll be trying it this weekend at the tough, high-banked track known as the Monster Mile. It's a tough track for rookie and veteran alike, as Leicht learned last year when a crash forced him to a backup car. He started that race last September in 30th and wound up 23rd.
He'll be driving the same car that ran so well on Nashville's concrete surface and hopes the success continues.
"I had a lot of fun at Dover. The first time I was there it was kind of crazy because when you're going down the straightaway you're so high up in the air and then when you get down in the corner it drops something like three stories," Leicht said. "It's a crazy track, but I had a lot of fun last year. We wrecked our primary car, but still ran good in the backup car, so I'm really looking forward to going back."
Leicht's finishes might not look that impressive because of fields filled with Cup regulars, but the native of Asheville, N.C., thinks his team is stronger than it appears.
"I think early this year we've had some runs that we didn't deserve the finishes we got. We either had bad luck or something go wrong, but I think as a team we've really learned a lot all year long," he said. "We learn every week and I think we're getting closer to where we need to be. We're still not there yet, but, as a team, we're on the right track."
Finding the right level between aggressiveness and patience is one of his biggest goals these days. Leicht made his Cup debut last year and hopes time spent racing with the Cup regulars in the Busch Series will help when he makes the job for good.
Earning their respect is one thing, but he doesn't want to be viewed as a pushover, either.
"You don't want to have any issues with anyone, especially a Cup driver because eventually if you get to Cup, that's who you're gonna be racing against," Leicht said. "It's hard to not have that happen, but sometimes there's nothing you can do about it. That's just hard racing and this team has done a great job all year and we're just gonna continue to improve every week."
Things haven't gone smoothly for owner Robert Yates on the Cup side, as veteran Ricky Rudd and David Gilliland, in his first full season, have struggled with consistency as well. Yates hopes to see a turnaround there, which could then filter down to the Busch Series and Leicht's program.
Yates knows racing is filled with cycles and said he thinks things are turning in the right direction.
"I've been there enough times. You sweat and it's tough and you think the sky is gonna fall on you, but the next thing you know you get your stuff right and you go win a race and that lifts it off your shoulders or your heart or wherever it's sitting," Yates said. "I think it's sitting on my stomach, but we're looking forward to it.
"Doug [Yates, Robert's son and the team's co-owner] told me the other day that a year ago we were so far off of our marks on everything, but we feel we've made a huge gain in a year. We know that other people have too and we can't stop, but we've got a lot more energy dedicated to different projects and we're looking forward to getting out here and racing."
Leicht, meanwhile, said he doesn't mind racing all the Cup regulars on a weekly basis. He would, however, like to see something done to give the Busch-only drivers a better chance to be competitive.
"I think the only thing that bothers us is the fact that the Cup guys get twice as much practice every week. I don't really think you can ban a Cup driver from running a Busch race," Leicht said. "I don't think that's fair because if I were a Cup driver, I would want to do the same thing. I think something needs to be done like maybe allow us to test more -- allow just the Busch regulars to test more or give us another set of tires for practice.
"I'd like to see them do something to try and make it a little more even and help us catch up a little bit because whether it's the Car of Tomorrow or not, you can still carry information over and the track time is what makes those guys the best. That's what we're lacking right now."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.