FORT WORTH, Texas (April 6, 1998) When Chad Little's John Deere team joined Roush Racing's multi-car ranks at the end of last season, the 34-year-old driver expected his NASCAR Winston Cup Series fortunes to change for the better....
FORT WORTH, Texas (April 6, 1998)
When Chad Little's John Deere team joined Roush Racing's multi-car ranks at the end of last season, the 34-year-old driver expected his NASCAR Winston Cup Series fortunes to change for the better. What he didn't expect was to find himself racing his teammate and mentor, Mark Martin, for the win in only his sixth start of the 1998 season.
As Little crossed the finish line in second place in the Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, he did more than score his best career finish. Little and his team sent a message to the stock car racing world; quieting critics and establishing themselves as a threat to win a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race this season.
"I think we showed a lot of people today that our race team is for real," Little said. "Every person in our organization made a choice to dig deep and commit himself to reaching this level. What's important is that we keep this momentum high and run in the top five every weekend. If we do that, the wins will come.
"We came so close to winning the thing, but Mark was just too tough right there at the end. I gave it everything I could, but we just ran out of time.
"I'm so happy right now, I feel like we won the race. We're not a bit disappointed in finishing second, especially since Mark was the only car that could beat us today. I've always looked up to him, and having him as a teammate has helped us develop to this point."
Little's charge to the $238,550 payday began when he qualified fifth during Saturday morning's continued Bud Pole Qualifying session. That track position would prove to be critical when the field of 43 cars took the green flag on what is being called one of the most difficult race tracks on the NASCAR circuit.
Before two laps of the scheduled 334 had been completed, a 10-car accident erupted behind Little's No. 97 Ford Taurus in the speedway's problematic turn one. After a 35-minute red flag delay for cleanup, the race restarted with Little in fifth place.
The John Deere Ford took the lead for the first time under caution on lap 32 and led two green flag laps before yielding to Martin on lap 35. For the next 50 laps, Little battled a tight-handling condition but managed to stay in the top four until the caution flew again when rookie driver Kenny Irwin hit the wall in Turn one. A quick pit stop for four fresh tires and an air pressure adjustment sent Little back into the fray in fourth on lap 85.
"The car was almost perfect all day," Little said. "We were a little tight, but we were still better than most everyone else was. Qualifying up front made the difference. That kept us out of the crashes that ruined a lot of cars.
"People will be saying a lot of things about this race track as long as we run here. It'll never be perfect, but no track is. In a way, it's more satisfying to be a force at a track that's this tough than at a place that everyone likes to run on. You know you've really accomplished something at the end of the day when you come out on top at a place like Texas.
As the laps clicked away, Little's Ford remained a fixture in the top five. Though the tight condition persisted, Little's machine was strong enough to pass Dale Jarrett for third on lap 149. Little assumed the lead again when both Jeremy Mayfield and Jeff Burton encountered problems that dropped the duo from the lead lap.
"I'm so happy right now, I feel like we won the race." With Burton and Mayfield out of contention for the win, the stage was set for a battle between Little, Martin and Jarrett with 134 laps to go. Little passed Martin for second on lap 210 then took the point for the third time between laps 217 and 230.
After all three cars pitted for four tires under caution on lap 252, Little found himself in third place when the green flew on 259. Sensing his chance to win the race, Little passed Martin and Jarrett once more and led the race for the fourth and final time from lap 279 to lap 304.
The final 30 laps were a shootout between Little and Martin who had both taken on only two tires during their final pit stops. As Jarrett faded with engine troubles, Little stalked teammate Martin, closing to within two car lengths as the checkers flew on lap 334.
The finish -- Little's first top-five and third top-10 of 1998 -- vaulted the John Deere team into 17th-place in the point standings.
"I'm so thankful for Jack Roush and everyone at John Deere for believing in me and this team," Little said. "It's been a long, tough road to get to this point, and that makes runs like this so special.
"We'll savor this finish until we get ready to race again at Martinsville. We've got a taste of what's it's like to win a race and we've got the tools to do it with. When the circumstances are right, we'll be the ones in Victory Lane." Source: NASCAR Online