James Small is no stranger to competing for the NASCAR Cup Series championship, but it’s different this time around.
Once the lead engineer for Martin Truex Jr. and now his crew chief, Small has worked with Truex in some capacity since the Furniture Row Racing days and now at Joe Gibbs Racing. That includes being a member of Furniture Row when Truex won the 2017 championship (Small was the lead engineer on the No. 77 team) and then transitioning onto Truex’s team when Truex qualified for the Championship 4 in 2018 and 2019.
Sunday afternoon at Phoenix Raceway (2 p.m. ET, NBC) Small’s first time chasing the championship as a Cup Series crew chief. The unanimous pick to replace Cole Pearn when Pearn unexpectedly left NASCAR after the 2019 season, Small has guided Truex to five wins in the last two seasons.
“It’s really an honor and a privilege,” said Small (pictured above celebrating in victory lane with Truex at Richmond in September). “I was lucky to be given the role after (Pearn) decided to bail on everybody, and I wanted to come over here and achieve this and get into this role. To get into this level and be fighting for a championship is something I dreamt of. I’m just lucky, and I’m lucky to have a great group of people around me to help me.”
Considering their previous championship-contending experience together, Truex doesn’t have to worry about the weekend getting to Small. Seeing Small at the shop this week, Truex said his leader “feels good” and is confident about the weekend ahead.
“It’s a great confidence booster for him for going forward,” Truex said of Small’s first Championship 4 appearance as a crew chief. “But really, it’s just kind of a reward for all his hard work and his grit, determination, and what he’s put into it. He works so hard. No question, hands down, he’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met. It’s just a great reward for him to see that payoff and for our team for all that to pay off.”
Pearn was not only one of a kind with his consistent attire of a black t-shirt, easy-going personality off the track yet fierce competitive nature, but also considered one of the best crew chiefs in the business. Pearn and Truex won a championship and 24 races together and were part of why Furniture Row went from an also-ran team struggling for respectable finishes to one of the series’ top dogs. And in the process, Truex went from underdog to perennial contender.
Small was Pearn’s protege or, as Truex described them, twins. It’s why Small stepped in and they never missed a beat on the No. 19 team, although critics were quick to point out the success wasn’t the same or that Small had not been able to do for Truex what Pearn did.
Small is no Pearn, and in his first year with Truex, the team won once and finished seventh in the championship standings after failing to make the Championship 4. But the duo came out of the gates strong in 2021, taking no time to show themselves as potential championship contenders, and went on make the final four at Phoenix.
“He had a lot of pressure,” Truex said of Small. “He stepped in, he had big shoes to fill. You look at what Cole did and what Cole did for me, and James, working beside him, understood what he was taking over. He knew that there were going to be high expectations. It’s not like he just got surprised or whatever.
“I’m just proud of him for his hard work. I’d love to give him a championship — his first one. Hopefully not his last.”