NASCAR’s Next Generation: Jesse Little

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Jesse Little won’t be watching the latest scary movies this Halloween season.

“I’m not a fan of horror movies at all. I’m terrified,” said Little, the son of former Sprint Cup driver Chad Little. “My girlfriend and I watched the ‘Insidious’ movie that came out, I think, last year and I left. I’ll be honest, I got out of the theater and left, I was so terrified.”

Little’s girlfriend wouldn’t follow for five more minutes.

The 18-year-old driver shared this with NASCAR Talk while he prepared for last weekend’s K&N Pro Series East season finale at Dover International Speedway. Dover also gave Little his scariest moment as a driver.

During his first K&N practice session on the 1-mile track in 2012, Little was attempting to merge into traffic after two cars had passed him.

“I was relating myself to them and knowing where I was losing speed at and the first time I ever really went up to speed the car got a little loose,” Little said. “I didn’t even try to save it, I just slammed on the brakes and chased it all the way up the track. At the time I remember thinking, ‘wow, I guess this is why they call it ‘the Monster.'”

The following Q&A with Little, who is a part of the NASCAR Next program that spotlights the sport’s emerging stars, has been edited and condensed.

NASCAR TALK: Do you remember what you were doing when you got the call about being part of NASCAR Next?

JESSE LITTLE: Yeah, I was at school. I had just gotten out of calculus and was walking to my gym class and Jessica, who is in charge of the program, texted me and said, ‘Do you have a minute?’ Luckily my gym class teacher was pretty lenient and said, ‘Yeah, go ahead’ and I walked out of the building for a second and took the call. Came back in with a big smile on my face and a big sigh of relief.

Note: Little graduated from Banby High School in Claremont, N.C., in the spring and will begin attending the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in January.

NT: What degree are you looking to pursue?

JL: Definitely something on the business side. Finance, economics. Something in that category. Right now I’m looking at international business.

NT: What drew you to that? 

JL: My dad went to college in Washington state and graduated in business administration and I just enjoy it. Seeing all the opportunities it’s given him after his driving career, it’s something I certainly feel is a good field to go into to get a good knowledge base and background. At the same time, I love traveling. I was fortunate enough to go to Europe after I graduated high school. We traveled around France and Italy for two weeks and just fell in love with it. It’s something I’m passionate about and excited for at the same time.

Jesse Little drives his KNPSE car at Richmond International Raceway. His No. 97 is the same number used by his father, Chad Little, during the later years of his Sprint Cup career. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
Jesse Little drives his K&N car at Richmond International Raceway. His No. 97 is the same number used by his father, Chad Little, during the later years of his Sprint Cup career. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

NT: In Europe, if you would tell someone that you were a NASCAR driver, would they recognize what that was?

JL: It’s funny you say that, because one of the waitresses at one of the restaurants we ate at in Rome was actually a NASCAR fan. The touring series over there has the NASCAR (Whelen) Euro series. She was a pretty heavy follower of that. She rattled off a couple of names of some of the active drivers in that series. I told her ‘I race very similar cars in America’ and she got a kick out of that. It was pretty neat to see such a strong American-based sport is also popular over there.

NT: Going back to the college thing, is that something your dad really wanted you to do or do you see that as your back-up plan or is it your main plan?

JL: A little bit of both. My dad definitely puts a heavy emphasis on education and I see why. I’ve grown up and kind of realized that best-case scenario I might be able to make a career out of racing, but the chances are kind of not really in my favor, but I’m going to do everything I can to make it my career. But if not, I want to have a good background to fall back on and continue to have a successful life, and I think college is the easiest path for me to do that. Plus, I want the education and I want to do everything I can to further myself.

NT: Ryan Newman has an engineering degree but I don’t think it’s commonplace to find NASCAR drivers who have made it that far with college degrees. How many drivers do you know that have degrees or how many drivers do you know say they wished they’d gotten their degrees?

JL: I know a lot more that are in that second category, for sure. It’s a tough thing to say, if I do land a full-time ride and I’m able to win races and make a good, successful career out of this, then I might look back and say that was a waste of four years, but I highly doubt that. It’s something that I want and am passionate about. I love racing, but at the same time I know I’m not going to be doing it forever, so why not have something that’s a successful thing to fall back on?

NT: What’s your earliest memory of racing?

JL: I was five or six years old, I remember My dad had just retired and had gone to work for NASCAR. I remember he took me to the Charlotte race. I unfortunately don’t have any memories of him racing. I was so young, he retired I think in 2004 or 2003. A couple of years after that, I remember going to (Charlotte) and pretty much everybody we ran into or walked by said ‘Hey Chad, how’s it going?’ and talked to him. I remember seeing how cool it was that everybody knew my dad and everybody was talking to my dad. The older I got the more I wanted that, the more I wanted to follow in his footsteps and have what he had and make a career out of it.

NT: After two full seasons in the K&N East Series, how do you mentally navigate a season where, without any full-time ride, you’re not guaranteed a race every week?

JL: I work in the shop every single day. Since I graduated in the spring, I’m down at our shop every day, 7 to 5, and being around it so much and building the cars, putting together and understanding the suspension and what adjustment makes the car do this and understanding all that, I think, gives me an edge to not being in the seat every week. I feel when I go to a K&N race, I’m really able to fine-tune the car even though I haven’t raced for a month before because I know when we adjusted this in the shop it changed the wedge this way. I’m able to focus on those little things, and I think it helps me a lot. Especially in relaying it to the crew chief.

NT: Earlier you said chances aren’t really in your favor of having a very long racing career. Is that something you’ve come to terms with recently, or is that something you recognized a long time ago?

JL: A little bit of both. (It) was always in the back of my mind a long time ago, but here recently I’ve really noticed, OK, not having the financial backing of some of the other drivers, it’s going to be really difficult to transition to that next level and be successful. But I think it’s something I can make up for with my talent, and I hope to meet the right people. That’s what it’s going to come down to, having somebody that believes in me and gives me a shot. To do that, I’ve got to prove that I’m capable of it.

 

 

Previous Q&A’s:

NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET: Las Vegas recap

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN and will look back at the weekend’s racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Steve Letarte will be joined by Kyle Petty and Nate Ryan.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

After Las Vegas incidents, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson look for Richmond rebound

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas leaves Chip Ganassi Racing with a mixed bag of potential strategies to develop heading into the next race, this Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Kurt Busch, the first NASCAR playoff champion in 2004, was involved in a wreck at Vegas with eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 189 that knocked him out of the event, ending with a last-place finish of 39th.

We were trying to go for the same spot in the middle, it wound up four-wide, got a fender rub and our day’s done,” Busch told NBCSN after he left the medical center. “It just happened that fast. Everyone wants to try to get to the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots and Truex and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”

As a result of the poor finish, Busch finds himself in 14th place among the 16 playoff contenders, a distant 63 points behind points leader Truex Jr.

How Busch rebounds at Richmond will go a long way toward determining whether he will advance to the Round of 12 following the Roval elimination race at Charlotte in two weeks. Busch is currently 14 points behind 12th-ranked Aric Almirola, but he is also only 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones.

There’s no question Busch is in need of a big comeback at Richmond, a track that he has had decent success at, including two wins (last time was in spring 2015), seven top five and 15 top-10 finishes in 37 career Cup starts there.

A win would immediately wipe out the Las Vegas nightmare and push Busch into Round 2.

And then there’s teammate Kyle Larson, who had a car that looked like it could challenge for the win at Vegas. But a costly pit road penalty — a behind-the-wall crew member trying to grab tires back over the wall slipped, touching the ground on pit road — pushed Larson back and he wound up playing catch-up the rest of the race. He settled for an eighth-place finish that potentially could have been a top five showing had it not been for the penalty.

Our car was better than what I thought it was going to be,” Larson said. “We were able to battle up front there in the second stage. Then, we had the pit road penalty and had to come from the back.

The restarts were crazy and I was just being safe. It probably cost us a little bit, but we still got a top-10 out of the day and some decent stage points. So, all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad day.”

Busch has one win this season, while Larson is still looking for his first.

Our cars have definitely been good enough to win, we just have to put the whole races together at this point,” Larson said. “We want to win. We’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can knock one out before the season is over.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.