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:

Dr. Diandra: Determining the 10 all-time best Cup drivers at Daytona

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Fourteen of the drivers competing for the 2023 championship have 17 Cup wins at Daytona between them. That total includes multiple winners Denny Hamlin (3), Kevin Harvick (2) and Austin Dillon (2).

How do these drivers stack up against the all-time best Daytona drivers?

The Data

I only include drivers with at least 10 races on the Daytona oval. If you’re going to be called an ‘all-time great’, you need enough races to prove it.

Between 1959-71, NASCAR counted some Daytona qualifiers as regular-season races. For example, while most record books assign David Pearson eight Daytona victories, two of those wins were qualifying races. But qualifier races, which are fewer laps and a smaller field, aren’t the same as 400- or 500-mile races.

I therefore don’t include any qualifying races in this analysis. Doing so creates a serious bias against recent drivers. So I credit Pearson with six win in this analysis.

Winning

It’s tempting to simply list the drivers with the most Daytona wins.

  • Richard Petty (10)
  • Cale Yarborough (eight)
  • Pearson, Bobby Allison and Jeff Gordon (six each)
  • Fireball Roberts, Bill Elliott, Tony Stewart, Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (four each)

But Petty needed 64 races to get those 10 wins. Yarborough won eight times in 48 races, so Yarborough’s 16.7%-win rate just edges out Petty’s 15.6%. Using numbers of wins disadvantages drivers with shorter careers, which is why I prefer win rate.

A table showing the 10 all-time best Daytona drivers in terms of winning percentageThe table shows that neither Petty nor Yarborough come close to Roberts’ 36.4% win rate. That’s four wins in just 11 attempts.

As far a current drivers go, Dillon takes 11th place with a win rate of 10.5%. The next active driver on the list is William Byron at 13th. Byron is also the last driver with a win rate at or above 10%.

But I want the best driver, not simply the winningest driver. Plenty of great NASCAR drivers never won at Daytona.

Average Finish Position

Luck plays more of a role at Daytona than at most other tracks. A driver can run a brilliant race but finish in the 30s after being taken out by a late crash. Average finishing position measures driving ability and ability to finish races.

Here’s a list of the best all-time drivers in terms of average finishes.

A table showing the 10 all-time best Daytona drivers in terms of average finish

Darel Dieringer raced in the Cup Series from 1957-69. He returned to run Daytona, Talladega and two Charlotte races in 1975.

Although Dieringer won 6 races, his only trip to Daytona’s Victory Lane was the first 1965 qualifier race. Nonetheless, he’s the only driver with an average finishing position below 10 at Daytona.

Fred Lorenzen, Ned Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt finished between 10th and 11th position on average.

Bubba Wallace ranks fifth in average finish at Daytona. He also ranks first among all drivers in percentage of second-place finishes with 27.3%, or a little more than one in four.

Only one driver — Pearson — appears on the top-10 lists for winning rate and average finishing position.

Top fives

Again, I’m using rates to account for different drivers having run different numbers of races. Here’s a list of the top-10 all-time best drivers for finishing in the top five.

A table showing the 10 all-time best Daytona drivers in terms of top-five finishes

Lorenzen comes in first with a 62.5%. No one else gets close. Second on the list is Jack Smith with a 50% top-five rate.

Hamlin comes in 15th on this list with a 32.4% top-five rate. Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch are right behind him with 31.6% and 31.0% rates respectively.

The all-time best Daytona drivers

My algorithm gives half of the emphasis to average finishing position, 35% to win rate and the remaining 15% to top fives. In all cases, I’m using their rank compares to other drivers. Thus, the driver with the smallest total is the best Daytona driver. A perfect score would be 1.

But no one’s perfect.

A table showing the final list of the top-10 all-time best Daytona driversOnly Pearson ranked in the top 10 in all three of my metrics. That lands him the title of all-time best Daytona driver. He didn’t win any of the categories, but posted strong numbers across the board.

Pearson and Smith are the only drivers with a final ranking below 10. Smith was hurt by his low win rate, as was Earnhardt. It’ll be interesting to see how Earnhardt fares when we do the same ranking for Talladega.

Dillon is the only current driver to make the final list. Here’s how some other recent drivers rank compared to the all-time greats:

  • Gordon (11th)
  • Hamlin (13th)
  • Wallace (18th)

Who do you rank best? Tell me in the comments.

Even more importantly, tell me what metrics you think are most important in determining the all-time best Daytona drivers.

Kyle Busch to run five Truck races for KBM in 2023

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Wednesday the five Craftsman Truck Series team owner Kyle Busch will race this season.

Busch’s Truck races will be:

March 3 at Las Vegas

March 25 at Circuit of the Americas

April 14 at Martinsville

May 6 at Kansas

July 22 at Pocono

Busch is the winningest Truck Series driver with 62 career victories. He has won at least one series race in each of the last 10 seasons. He has won 37.6% of the Truck races he’s entered and placed either first or second in 56.7% of his 165 career series starts.

Zariz Transport, which specializes in transporting containers from ports, signed a multi-year deal to be the primary sponsor on Busch’s No. 51 truck for all of his series races, starting this season. The company will be an associate sponsor on the truck in the remaining 18 series races.

Myatt Snider to run six Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Myatt Snider is the latest driver to be announced as running a select number of Xfinity races in the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Snider will run six races with the team. Ryan Truex (six races), Joe Graf Jr. (five) and Connor Mosack (three) also will be in JGR’s No. 19 Xfinity car this year.

Snider’s first race with the team will be the Feb. 18 season opener at Daytona. He also will race at Portland (June 3), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7), Las Vegas (Oct. 14), Martinsville (Oct. 28) and the season finale at Phoenix (Nov. 4).

The deal returns Snider to JGR. He worked in various departments there from 2011-15.

“We’re looking forward to have Myatt on our No. 19 team for six races,” said Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of Xfinity and development. “Building out the driver lineup for this car is an opportunity for JGR to help drivers continue to develop in their racing career, and we’re looking forward to seeing how Myatt continues to grow.”

Said Snider in a statement from the team: “With six races on our 2023 schedule, I’m looking forward to climbing into the No. 19 TreeTop Toyota GR Supra with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Having worked with JGR as a high schooler and a young racer, it’s an awesome full circle moment to return as a driver to the team that taught me so much about racing itself.

“It’s good to be reunited with (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff as we have an awesome history working together. With many memories and wins from 2013 and 2014 when I worked on the No. 20 Toyota Camry under Jason’s leadership, the team has always been more of a family relationship to me. I’m glad to be returning to the JGR family and looking forward to continuing to learn and grow as a driver.”

Daytona will be Snider’s 100th career Xfinity start. He has one series win and 21 top 10s. He was the rookie of the year in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2018.

Tree Top will be Snider’s sponsor for his six races with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Also in the Xfinity Series, Gray Gaulding, who will run full season with SS Green Light Racing, announced that he’ll have sponsor Panini America for multiple races, including the Daytona opener. Emerling-Gase Motorsports announced that Natalie Decker will run a part-time schedule in both the ARCA Menards Series and Xfinity Series for the team.

 

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”