By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Jesse Little’s rewarding top-10 finish from last Sunday’s Pocono Green 225 at Pocono Raceway still brightens up his day. Not only showcasing how much progress he’s made as a NASCAR Xfinity Series rookie, but finally allowing him to find his racing rhythm.
“I’m comfortable with the cars,” Jesse told Motorsports Tribune. “I’ve had enough laps, even though I haven’t had a lot of practice. I’ve had enough laps in the races being week-to-week-to-week that I’m comfortable in myself.”
Prior to surviving the mayhem that took out several front running contenders and navigating the “Tricky Triangle” for the very first time ever, Little had a streak of top-15 finishes with a 15th at the second Homestead-Miami Speedway race and a 13th at Talladega Superspeedway.
“The previous two races, we’ve found our groove. We were able to gain the race the way we wanted, setting ourselves up for the end,” said the JD Motorsports with Gary Keller driver.
Then came Pocono where Little’s unsponsored No. 4 Chevrolet ended up being the highest finishing car out of the Johnny Davis owned stable, resulting to his maiden top-10 result in the series.
“We were in our rhythm. Nothing’s changed and we’re going to race our race and do adjustments that only we think we feel that we’re capable of,” Little said of his performance at Pocono. “All doing so, we’re going to take care of our stuff and miss wrecks. We missed a lot of wrecks and of course we wound up with our first top-10.
“It was really rewarding in the sense that we did everything that we should do and got my first top-10 out of it.”
In a time period where the sport hasn’t had any practice sessions since racing resumed at Darlington Raceway in May, several drivers haven’t been fazed about going straight to racing as they feel it has closed up the playing field.
The 23-year-old agreed as his red and white Camaro can unload out of the hauler and not be far behind the top-tier race teams such as JR Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.
“I think it honestly benefits me,” said Little. “I’m able to go to a race, whether I’ve been there or not, I think it puts me a little closer to those top-10 guys than if we unload and they get into rhythm in practice and get their cars a little better. It creates a bigger disparity from team-to-team.
“It doesn’t allow JRM or Gibbs to be able to take time and practice through new setups or run more options that they found on the sim. It kind of just says, ‘Hey, you’re running what your showing up with.’ I think it forces a lot of guys to be more conservative. In that sense, it closes the competition gap up.”
Going forward to his rookie campaign, the man 18th in points will be running the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. Unlike the past several weeks, the series will have a two-hour practice session as the Xfinity Series have never ran the 2.41-mile road course.
In a time in which testing is done exclusively on simulators, Jesse explained the challenges that lies ahead with Saturday’s Pennzoil 150 (3 p.m. EST on NBC) and beyond with tracks such as Kansas Speedway (Saturday, July 25 at 5 p.m. EST on NBCSN) and Michigan International Speedway (currently postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic) being venues he’s also never raced, but excited to run.
“I think this year people are placing more emphasis on iRacing than ever before. Even when it comes to Indy, the hard part is the configuration isn’t exact. It’s a road course, but it’s not the NASCAR road course so that’s another variable that we’re taking into account,” Little said about sim racing.
“(Having practice at Indy) will be very helpful and very rewarding, especially that it’s a road course,” he added.
“For these other tracks that I’ve never been to, I’ve made it a part of my weekly routine now where I spend an hour, hour and a half a day on the race track with the Xfinity car and just putting down as many laps as I can.”
Before moving up to Xfinity full-time, Little ran a limited Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series schedule for his uncle Jason Little, who owned JJL Motorsports from 2015-19 until selling it to Logan Puckett, becoming Diversified Motorsports Enterprises in the process.
Jesse still races in the No. 97 Ford F-150 on occasional basis, including the upcoming race at Kentucky Speedway (Saturday, July 11 at 6 p.m. EST on FS1) where he made his Cup Series debut last year, finishing 35th for Premium Motorsports.
In the years Little’s family owned the team, he had an outstanding 2018 campaign where in nine races, he finished in the top-10 six times with a career best sixth-place run at Iowa Speedway with Matt Noyce, who went on to become Ben Rhodes’ crew chief since 2019, calling the shots.
The No. 97 team were also one of the only three truck teams representing the “Blue Oval” brand with ThorSport Racing (who left Toyota) and Roper Racing being the others after Brad Keselowski closed his own truck team at the end of the 2017 season.
With only three employees, the team bought two of Keselowski’s trucks and certainly made the most out of running a Ford F-150 after running Toyota Tundras for three seasons.
“I kind of really showed people that it’s something I want to do, and I take seriously. I’m not doing it because it’s a family deal but I’m doing it because I want to climb my way to the top,” said Little.
“Going out and being as competitive as we were and doing it the way we did with just two employees and myself, is great. Let alone for a small part-time three employee truck team. It was really beneficial for me and likewise for my crew, so it kind of catapult all of us into the positions we’re in today now.”
When asked if his 2018 Truck Series season had any influence on where he is today in the Xfinity Series, Little agreed 100 percent.
“It paid off twice over. I went from running 10 truck races in one year and being competitive and now all of a sudden just two years later,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to be in position to be able to go full-time Xfinity racing. Not just that but knock out seven or eight top-15s and lo and behold a top-10, and we’re almost halfway through the year.
“It’s been a pretty awesome ride so far. Pretty amazing journey to look back and know what we did two years ago and how we are racing to what I’m doing now. I’m very fortunate and lucky, counting my blessings every day for the people I have around me.”
Although Jesse would love to be racing forever, he knows having a “Plan B” is vital as he has three more classes at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte before earning his degree in Management Information System with a minor in Business Analytics this December.
Jesse’s father and former NASCAR driver Chad Little, also pursued a secondary education at both Washington State University and Gonzaga University where he graduated with a Business Associates and Law degree respectively.
“From an early time, I kind of told myself that I’m going to do this. The older I got, the more I realized no one can race forever. You’re very lucky if you’re even able to make a career out of it. Let alone, get to do it and so I told myself that I wanted to pursue a secondary education,” Jesse said about having an education while trying to break through as a racer.
“I was very fortunate enough to still be able to race on a part-time schedule which also allowed to focus quite a bit on school as well and knock out a lot of my early years full-time.
“The peak of the puzzle were all there and I was kind of riding the perfect time to be able to do it and to run a handful of truck races then and there. Keep my name somewhat out there. Obviously, not in a spotlight but definitely somewhat out there.
“I’m very fortunate to do be able to do both and to pursue it. I think it’s going to be nothing but help me out in the future. It’s certainly already has even in the racing world. I’m looking forward to that Plan B as I call it. Hopefully, I get to drive forever. If not, I know what my Plan B will be.”
If Little had any advice for those pursuing both education and a racing career, people shouldn’t be discouraged because many successful drivers have had an “unconventional and different” journeys as he best describes his own thus far.
“Don’t get down or feel like your time is up because there’s been plenty of evidence of some of the most successful drivers and some current drivers that are there and have made it, they’ve done it the most unconventional ways,” he said.
“Just two years ago, I didn’t know if I was ever going to race full-time. Let alone full-time in the Xfinity Series and knocking out top-10s. Don’t ever get discouraged and just always put as much of your effort as you can. That’s all you can ask for.”