He’d be the first to admit it: James Small had big shoes to fill.
Replacing Cole Pearn, an engineer turned championship-winning crew chief for a powerhouse organization who upped and left in a surprise offseason move, coming off a runner-up season in the standings, where a bad pit stop may have meant a second title in three years…
Talk about pressure.
Small silenced any doubters Wednesday night at Martinsville Speedway, as his driver Martin Truex Jr. cruised to the victory, leading the final 131 laps and earning the No. 19 teams first victory of the season and Truex’s second consecutive at NASCAR’s oldest track.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Small said. “To be perfectly honest, it’s a big relief.”
"F*CK YEAH MAN. THAT'S UNBELIEVABLE. I LOVE YOU. THAT'S AWESOME. Alright, see you soon." – James Small, now a Cup Series winner atop the pit box.
— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) June 11, 2020
Truex didn’t score a top 10 finish until the first race post-pandemic shutdown at Darlington. Prior to that ninth-place run, results of 32nd (crash), 20th, 14th and 32nd (crash) plagued the team, getting them off to a slow start.
But as the results improved (four straight top 10s), confidence and performance rose.
“We’ve had a challenging year. We had fast cars every week. Just things haven’t been going our way,” Small said. “Finally tonight everything clicked. Nothing went wrong. Well, nearly nothing went wrong. That’s the biggest thing, it’s a relief.”
“I’m happy, super happy for everybody. Thankful for everybody at JGR. Now we can just go and race, race hard. We have less pressure on ourselves now. We’re in the (playoffs). We’re in a really good points position. We can just focus on getting bonus points, look forward to the (playoffs).”
The night almost went sour in a hurry when Truex was penalized for a commitment-line violation (not having all four tires below the orange box at pit entrance) and was forced to restart at the rear.
James Small: "They just showed it on TV. I think it's complete f*cking bullshit, to be honest."
"We got f*cked, man. We got f*cked big time […] we'll get back up there and we're gonna slay these motherf*ckers," he says.
I think the Aussie likes to curse…?
— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) June 11, 2020
Small took the blame for the miscue and backed up his promise, as the rest of the field was indeed slayed.
“I made a blunder, I admit,” he said. “I called Martin too late. He crossed the commitment line. That’s where our race took a little bit of a turn. We sustained a little bit of damage in that short run there. We were able to make some repairs once we went all the way to the back. The next run we were absolutely terrible. Almost went down a lap. Car wasn’t great. We made a small change clearly in the wrong direction. Undid that, made a few more other changes.”
Small, a native of Melbourne, Australia, had been in contact with his friends and family down under amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He estimated he had nearly 250 text messages waiting for him from people worldwide as they were watching him make history.
“I know everybody’s watching down there these days,” he said with a smile. “Lucky enough since the break from COVID, it’s now actually back on FOX Sports in Australia because there’s no other sport really on. They watch it on the NASCAR app all the time, FOX Sports. They’re all listening on the radio.”
“They’re big supporters of mine. I’m very lucky to have them. They helped me to get to where I am today.”
Small also admitted he’d be nowhere near the person he is confidence wise without his driver backing him up. Amid all the speculation this past offseason whether or not Small was up for the task, Truex led the charge in support of Small.
“He’s been very supportive of me,” he said. “After Bristol I thought to myself, that was a tough weekend for us. We got back to fifth, then we got taken out. That was probably one of our worst weekends of the year in terms of just trying to hit the setup.
“Everybody on the team has stuck behind me, including Martin. They’ve been big supporters. They have faith that if we just keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to bring fast cars to the track every week.”
Truex echoed that sentiment, never wavering from his firm trust that the Aussie was more than serviceable: he was a race winner.
“I have confidence in James all year that we can continue what we’ve done,” Truex said. “I think this answers a great question for him more than anything to himself. I know he’s had a lot of people saying things about can he fill Cole’s shoes, is our team going to be able to continue what we’ve been able to do in the past with him. I feel 100 percent that we will. I think he’s doing a great job and I’m really proud of him.”
Small, admittedly, is similar to Pearn. Mild mannered, yet feisty. But he understands what his driver wants and needs communication wise. After their Monday debrief following Atlanta, the two didn’t speak to each other until before the race began.
They just didn’t need to.
“We just concentrate on doing all the fundamentals, everybody on our team all doing their individual parts as best as they can,” he said. “When it all clicks, it comes together and you see results like tonight. That’s hugely beneficial being able to see how Cole and him worked there over the past few years.”
Small set out a goal to win a race before the 14th event of the season. Now that mission has been accomplished, he;s setting his sights on bigger and better things down the road.
“It’s difficult, but we love the challenge. It’s paid off for us.”