The days leading up to the race summoned in Chad Little some of the old sensations.
Nothing in testing or qualifying for Sunday’s Daytona 500 and its companion race, the Goody’s 300, suggested that Little was working up to a stirring, record-setting run in Saturday’s 300.
He’d never won, not in 80 Winston Cup races, not in 41 Busch Series events for Grand National cars.
The Goody’s 300 had never gone to a starter from as far back as 42nd, where Little was pigeon-holed with the stragglers. The tradition of the race was domination by Winston Cup stars pulling weekend double-duty.
Dale Earnhardt won the last five 300s before turning over his Grand National car to Jeff Green. Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Geoff Bodine and now Chad Little are the only others to win the prestigious warm-up event the day before stock car’s premier race, the Daytona 500.
Chad Little, University High School class of 1981, failed to qualify for the 500. The slash of a tire sent him crashing in a qualifying race.
And that was just the half of it.
All week, the new V-8 in his smaller Grand National Ford Thunderbird was missing at high RPMs. He never did get the car qualified. He was a provisional starter, a modest reward for a fine ‘94 season.
With nothing to do for Sunday’s race, the Little people looked to Saturday, finally solving a carburetor problem late in the game Friday.
It started with a tip. Harold Holly, a crewman, picked up something from a friendly rival that had worked. Holly brought the information back to the Little camp.
The No. 23 Ford Thunderbird was not the same carburetorimpaired puzzle that had fizzled all week.
“It’d been missing since we unloaded the car and we couldn’t find it,” Little said as he geared up for Saturday’s Busch Series race at Rockingham, N.C. “Luckily we found it but had no idea how Saturday would go.
“Right off the bat I knew I was competitive. I went from 42nd to 25th in 15 laps, then up to 15th.
“I had a fast car but I just missed a wreck earlier in the race by inches. Somebody guided me through that one. I had an angel on my shoulder.”
When he dropped out of the draft to allow the over-heated engine to cool - and faded to 20th - experts noticed.
Kyle Petty, the driver, the son of King Richard and Saturday’s TV analyst, misjudged what was going on, evidenced by his comments with 43 laps left.
Kyle: “I’ll tell you what. You know you get these cars, and work all week long, and you run and run and get ‘em where you can run ‘em wide open and then you’re out here runnin’ like Chad is and people are driving away from you.
“There’s nothing that hurts your feelings more than that - to know there’s not anything that you can do. Everything’s workin’ good. You’re spending money, you’re just a little off, horsepower-wise. And that appears the way Chad is today.”
Commentator Ned Jarrett: “Yup.”
The car was fine, horsepowerwise. “When you’re drafting with two cars it’s like opposite magnets,” Little explained. “It creates like a foot and a half barrier. To break that barrier you have to drive in hard over somebody. I had the car to do it.”
After his final pit stop, Little began to feel that he’d win or go down trying.
He worked everything he could out of the pull and push of the draft.
“I pulled out to pass the sixth car and the seventh pulled down with me, enabling me to pass the sixth,” he said. “When I got into the top five I knew I had a shot.”
In second place in the 117th of 120 laps, Little ducked low to pass the leader, Steve Grissom, taking the wind out of Grissom’s stabilizing spoiler. The Grissom car drifted and was rammed by Mark Martin, touching off a nine-car pileup that Little saw in his mirror.
The crash robbed a great race of a great finish but contrary to the first paragraph in Sunday’s wire service report - written in the haste of a weekend deadline - the wreck didn’t make the champion.
“One of three things would have happened with or without the wreck,” Little said. “Either I was going to win, I was going to wreck or somebody was going to wreck with me. That’s how hard I was trying.”
Little led what was left of the race over the final two laps under caution. Alone with a TV camera, his helmet hung up inside the car, his soft cap on, he held a steady wave to 110,000 fans as if he’d won at Daytona a dozen times.
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