When the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series was dwindling down, Jesse Little had a decision to make: What’s next?
One thought was for Little to remain competing for a mid-pack Xfinity team, running all 33 races with the amount of funding he has, giving his partners more exposure for the duration of a full schedule. On the flip side, he wondered what if he used that same funding and ran a very limited schedule with a multi-million dollar Xfinity team, hoping to prove his worth. Little pointed to Ryan Preece as someone who has gone out with a Goliath in Joe Gibbs Racing, won a race and catapulted himself into a full-time ride at JTG Daugherty Racing in Cup.
Little ended his rookie season with two top-10 finishes with JD Motorsports, a team that oftentimes overachieves for the budget its racing on. He showed great promise, with only a few races getting derailed by driver error. It was pretty sporty given he’d never competed on 13 of the racetracks.
Nonetheless, Little describes his time at JDM as “awesome.” After all, both driver and team owner Johnny Davis shared a similar, old-school concept of DIY.
“I ended up [19th] in driver’s points,” Little recently told Jayski.com. “Which was a great goal for me – with a lot of things going into the offseason as far as confidence and being able to talk to other owners and sponsors.”
But still, Little wanted more. And being a client of Spire Sports + Entertainment, he found himself a home at BJ McLeod Motorsports for the 2021 season, which has other Spire clients on the team in Matt Mills, Mason Massey, Stefan Parsons and Vinnie Miller. Plus, Little admitted the No. 4 car at JD Motorsports was a hot commodity, with multiple drivers inquiring about the ride, which Landon Cassill (another Spire client) took over.
Admittedly, the move to the No. 78 Chevrolet full time was more of a lateral move rather than the next step up from JDM. But for Little, it’s about maximizing the opportunity of a second full Xfinity season.
“The timing felt right,” Little said of the move. “The opportunities that BJ [McLeod] presented were hard to say no to. The mid-pack Xfinity teams, they’re kind of all one family together. Even though you’re moving teams to another competitor, when it comes to the racetrack, we all want to help each other out.”
It wasn’t an easy decision for Little to leave JDM, either. Last year, he worked tirelessly to build chemistry with the No. 4 team, particularly with crew chief Bryan Berry.
And starting something new can always be quite scary.
“What I like to think about is people knew the [No.] 4 car because of Ross [Chastain],” Little said. “I looked at it like, ‘Hey, here’s an opportunity for people to know the [No.] 78 car because of Jesse.’ I wanted to put myself in that category and show that BJ McLeod Motorsports has the potential. I have the abilities and I felt this was a really good opportunity to do that.”
In his rookie season, Little was teammates with BJ McLeod, who competed 27 times for JDM in 2020. It was there where he leaned on McLeod for tips on the racetrack, but also on a personal level away from the racetrack.
But McLeod’s respect for the North Carolina native dates back to watching Little compete for his family-ran team in the Camping World Truck Series, picking up seven top-10 finishes in 34 starts.
“I had a pretty good relationship with [Little] last year, but always respected how good he was in the driver’s seat, and he was learning running 20th in the Xfinity Series coming off being a top 10 truck contender,” McLeod said. “It’s a different world and I was watching him get used to that.”
Through seven races this season, Little has a pair of top-20 efforts, both coming in the opening two weeks of the year at Daytona International Speedway. Since then, the No. 78 has a best finish of 22nd at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
On paper, an average finish of 26.1 doesn’t look too impressive. But Little said he’s had an ill-handling car in a couple races and his brake pedal went to the floor at Phoenix Raceway, wrecking hard. Add that to how stout the Xfinity field is this season, and it makes it all that more challenging to rebound.
But on the speed charts, Little has been solid at different points this season. So there is reason to be optimistic.
“It could have been really easy for us to bang our heads against the well and not want to get motivated again,” Little said. “For us to go [to the track] and have top 15 speed, I’m very pleased.”
McLeod echoed Little’s sentiments, believing the results will come.
“He’s done his job,” McLeod said. “He’s been consistent, worked hard, but we’ve had some negative things happen on the team side and we’re working through that, getting them ironed out and we’ll be fine. I’m not concerned with that at all.
“The way he’s handled the adversity that he’s faced with some things we’ve had go wrong has impressed me even more and has me looking forward to the rest of the year that much more. I don’t feel one ounce of frustration.”
Being a realist, Little knows it’s going to be tough to have a standout season this year because of the competition. Currently sitting 25th in driver points and 31st in owner points, his goal is to crack the top 20 by season’s end in both standings.
Internally, though, Little’s contemplating his career on a daily basis. Like all drivers, the goal is to run in the Cup Series for a competitive team. But getting those opportunities is more challenging than ever.
Given the opportunity, Little knows he can get the job done. But it’s a constant struggle of what’s best.
“I would rather be the guy that gets more out of my equipment,” Little said. “I think the downfall sometimes of running those Gibbs races is, yes, you have a shot to win, absolutely, but if you only have four races in a year and you’re putting all of your money on the line for those four races gambling wise, one race goes bad and now you only have three shots.
“I look at it as I still need experience on my own before I’m willing to take the gamble and say, ‘OK, I know I can go win all these races and I’m comfortable taking that shot,’ he said. “I think it’s also a big picture of my sponsors getting a lot more value of me running 33 races than me running four, even if it’s with a top organization. I think for myself, getting the most out of the equipment and having people say, ‘Wow, he’s running 15th look at them,’ rather than, ‘Look he finished fourth, he should have won that race.’”
The internal conversation never goes away.
“Every day,” Little said of how often he thinks about what he should do. “It’s a constant battle of positioning myself and figuring out what I have to do to be Cup racing in two, three, four years, whatever the timeline looks like.”
As for 2021, Little has somewhere between 10 and 15 races where he’s looking for primary sponsorship. Finding that is the immediate objective.