Consistency is no virtue when week after week you’re qualifying 26th and finishing 24th. That kind of regularity in racing doesn’t sell a lot of aspirin.
Seasoned by the hard bumps of summers in the slow lane, pumped by a breakthrough 1994 season, Chad Little leaves today for Daytona Beach, Fla., to begin testing for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500 and its companion event, the Feb. 18 Goody’s 300 Busch Series Grand National event.
Little heads for Daytona - stock car racing’s premier event, one of five Winston Cup races he’ll enter in ‘95 - holding himself to a higher standard.
His Winston Cup record last year was negligible - one race, no luck. But in Busch Series Grand National racing, the year was his best since he took the plunge from Spokane to Charlotte a half-dozen years ago.
In 28 starts he had 14 finishes among the top 10, 10 finishes among the top five and wound up third in points.
The highlight was an Aug. 20 near-miss at Brooklyn, Mich., when Little slipped by Mark Martin to lead late in the race only to have Bobby Labonte blow by him with seven laps left.
Little settled for second and the TV time that sponsors thrive on.
“Last year went well and that’s a good feeling,” Little said from his Charlotte, N.C., home. I finally got a group of cars underneath me but it wasn’t just a mechanical improvement. When I got hurt it was like something inside me was jarred. Hitting the wall at Charlotte jarred it.”
It’s hard to lay a finger on what was jarred loose in his wreck of May 28 - a survivor’s mentality, a resolve, a will to come back and push harder - but whatever it was made a difference.
Little recovered from a broken leg and broken shoulder to run up front.
So David Green and Ricky Craven are ahead of him in the Busch standings - not Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin. But the Busch Series isn’t bush league. It’s close enough to big time to call it that.
NASCAR’s stars, Earnhardt included, run enough Busch events to make it virtually the same as Winston Cup to the weekend viewers who associate winning with Earnhardt, and Earnhardt with Mr. Goodwrench.
Consumers at home had little reason to connect Little with anything until last year, when he did everything but win.
Melding with a speedway wall was a jolt. So was seeing a replacement driver in his car.
If nothing else, he had time to consider where he wanted to go. Life in a race car, he came to understand, is the life he would pursue.
After a driving apprenticeship out here that started in his teens, Little at 27 scratched up enough support to jump to Winston Cup. However admirable the effort, Chad Little of Spokane, Wash., wasn’t ready for Dale Earnhardt of Doolie, N.C.
Critics saw him as a kid who started at the top and worked his way down. Although he had the energy and confidence to drive a team at the major-league level, he really had no feel for driving a car there.
After the ‘92 season, when he thought about closing up shop and dusting off his Gonzaga University law degree, Little decided to step into the Busches.
The step back from Winston Cup took time to work out. In essence, Little went faster on the track after he learned to slow down off it.
“I’m not in a big hurry to get back to Winston Cup full time right now,” he said. “I’m content running the Busch Series. I’m learning. We learned more last year than we had in the previous five years, and got more attention and respect.”
A driver who sits on his laurels is stuck in reverse. Knowing that, Little views the approaching season with a critical focus.
“There are two things I need to concentrate on,” he said. “No. 1, I need to win some races at this level. We had a pretty good year but with two or three wins a pretty good year would have been a damn good one.
“Second, I need to qualify higher.”
He’ll have to do it with a different power plant. Gone in the Grand National cars are V-6 engines, scrapped for low-compression V-8s.
The reason, Little guesses, is that NASCAR is considering a future move at the Winston Cup level to politically correct unleaded fuel. Developing a racing engine that won’t choke on the stuff may be a step toward that end.
Little’s Fords will sport new colors - red and yellow instead of black and yellow, reflecting his sponsor’s new packaging.
Everything else is as it was last season. Harris Teeter, a Charlotte-based grocery chain, is a major sponsor with Bayer Select. Co-owners are Greg Pollex and Cleveland Browns quarterback Mark Rypien.
One car has been sold and two new ones built - one for the short tracks at South Boston, Va., and Hickory, N.C.
Hoping to weigh in as light as rules allow, Little said the cars’ body panels are dipped in acid. Acid eats the metal and cuts weight.
“Weight is important but the big question is the change to the V-8s,” he said. “I don’t anticipate problems, since we didn’t have an engine failure last year. Our engine builder, Mike Ege, is good.
“We have the people and the sponsorship in place,” Little added. “I see no reason why we can’t make a run at it.”
He’s talking about Daytona and beyond.
“We test all week at Daytona, then come home and test at Richmond the following week. We go back to Daytona on Feb. 5,” he said.
Daytona and the other four Winston Cup/Busch Series companion events Little will enter require separate teams and equipment. Typically, it’s the Busch car on Saturday, the Winston Cup car on Sunday. He’ll follow that schedule twice at Charlotte, at Talladega, Ala., on April 30 and in Phoenix late in the season.
The 31-year-old University High School grad drives a Ford that looks like a bottle of aspirin. The unlikely dream at Daytona?
Win a pair. Take two and call us in the morning.
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