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July 7, 2023

No. 19 crew chief James Small on SVG: ‘Just an incredible, natural talent’


Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 crew chief James Small speaks at a post-race news conference at the LA Memorial Coliseum
Meg Oliphant
Getty Images

Months ago, James Small had offered a hint of what Shane van Gisbergen, given a competitive NASCAR Cup Series ride, might be capable of. Small, the crew chief for Martin Truex Jr. and Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota, provided that early glimpse on social media last September, saying that team owners would be wise to give the New Zealander ace from the Australian V8 Supercars ranks that opportunity.

Trackhouse Racing co-founder Justin Marks ended up being that car owner, and van Gisbergen did the rest, dazzling the stock-car racing community with a stirring victory in his Cup Series debut last Sunday in the inaugural Chicago Street Race. The performance accelerated the 34-year-old wheelman’s “get to know you” process for fellow drivers and broadcasters alike, who sometimes struggled to pronounce his name but who certainly knew who he was — in full name or initial form as “SVG” — once the weekend was up.

For Small — a Melbourne, Australia native with a similar racing background Down Under — van Gisbergen was a known entity.

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“If you knew how good he was, he’s just an incredible, natural talent,” Small told NASCAR.com. “He always has been, and when he’s on, he’s unbeatable. And he can still be beaten like a lot of other people. It’s not like he has a free-for-all down there or anything like that, but yeah, I think it just set up perfectly for him. It was a track that nobody had any laps at. He is one of the all-time greats on street circuits in Australia. That’s his kind of bread and butter, and all those things, and the cars being a lot closer than they’ve ever been with the new Next Gen car versus what a V8 Supercar is like these days, it kind of all set up really good for him.

“That’s why I was pretty confident, but so long as he had a clean race, he was always gonna be up there, and yeah, he proved that.”

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Small says he and Shane van Gisbergen had mostly operated on parallel paths when climbing up the ranks of the Australian racing scene. Small recalls seeing one of his first starts nearly 15 years ago, but that the two never worked together on the same team, finding themselves on competing operations.

“To be perfectly honest, I’ve never had really a relationship with him or spoken to him that much, and the first time I had a proper, full conversation with him was in Nashville, when he came and found me,” Small said, referring to the Cup Series race weekend before Chicago. “But we have a lot in common and friends that are in common and everything.”

Still, he knew how stout van Gisbergen’s credentials were without needing to look them up for verification. SVG has raced to three Supercars championships — in 2016, 2021 and just last year in 2022 — and has 80 victories, good for fourth-most all time.

The suggestion that van Gisbergen suddenly surfaced out of nowhere has some flaws. Small says that any unfamiliarity in the USA stems from a lack of exposure, and that when stateside coverage provided by the Speed Channel ended 10 years ago, American eyes on the Supercars tour dwindled. “It’s a hard series to watch if you live in the U.S. unless you’re really dedicated,” he says.

Two prime examples stand out among van Gisbergen’s predecessors who have made a splash here. Marcos Ambrose was a two-time Supercars champ who pivoted to stock cars, winning twice in the Cup Series and five times in Xfinity competition, but often in mid-tier equipment and in an era when road courses — his specialty — were not as prevalent on the NASCAR schedule as they are today. More recently, Scott McLaughlin won three consecutive Supercars titles (2018-2020) before giving the NTT IndyCar Series a go. After netting just one podium as an IndyCar rookie, McLaughlin has won four times in the last season and a half for Team Penske.

“He and Shane were at it year after year there, winning all those championships before Scotty left,” Small says. “To see what he has done coming over here from a V8 Supercar into an IndyCar, you know, it looks like he’s spent his whole life racing open-wheel when he’s been racing open-wheels for about two and a half years, so the talent level there is super high. And I feel like there’s probably another three or four guys, definitely three that can come over here and probably do exactly what Shane did if they’re in the right equipment and you had that same opportunity again on a fresh street circuit.”

Van Gisbergen’s star turn in Chicago touched off a wave of speculation that more opportunities in the U.S. might be forthcoming. Jamie Whincup, the managing director of his Triple Eight Race Engineering team, fueled the conjecture by telling FOX Sports Australia that the team would not stand in SVG’s way should a Cup Series ride present itself.

Van Gisbergen said he remained committed to Supercars through 2024, a statement he made post-race in Chicago and then reiterated days later in the wake of Whincup’s remarks. “But in ’25, who knows?” he said Sunday.

If the NASCAR Cup Series became his destination for more than a one-off appearance, van Gisbergen could thrive again in the circuit’s road-course events. But it’s the various ovals — superspeedways, intermediates and short tracks — that Small said would provide the biggest challenge in the event SVG makes a full-time bid.

“I think the oval thing would be incredibly difficult, but I think even as Scotty has proven in IndyCar, the bridge can be gapped, you know what I mean?” Small says. “Especially now in the current day with all the simulation and the SMT data and having good teammates and people to lean on, and the cars just being a little more like a race car these days. They’re not sloppy, compliant things that we used to run in the past. I think all of that sets up in any of these guys’ favor if they want to come and try and do it.

“You look at it like, you could have a Xfinity Series rookie that’s run on ovals with not much race craft or racing experience or working with teams, all that kind of stuff. Or you could have someone like Shane, who you could maybe guarantee a road-course win no matter what, and it takes a little bit of the pressure off in learning all the other circuits. I think, hopefully, somebody gives him an opportunity or somebody else in the future, because I think given time, they could be competitive on all tracks, but certainly, they’re not going to jump in straight away and be winning races in my mind.”

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The Chicago event showcased Shane van Gisbergen’s skill, but it also demonstrated another phase of the current-generation Cup Series car’s adaptability. A quarter-mile track inside a football arena, a dirt track on top of Bristol’s concrete and now a temporary street circuit have joined the Cup Series schedule in the last three seasons. That versatility should be a boon if or when NASCAR’s top series goes global, said NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell, who added after the Chicago race: “I think we’re all confident at NASCAR that we could take the Cup Series anywhere we want.”

Other areas of North America might provide the easiest route for international expansion, but O’Donnell was asked about the possibility of Europe or the Australian and New Zealand markets as a potential landing place. NASCAR drivers participated in a pair of exhibition events at the Calder Park Raceway Thunderdome — a 1.119-mile oval — in 1988, and Champ Car was a regular participant at the Surfers Paradise street circuit from 1991-2007. The Calder Park oval though, Small says, has fallen into disrepair in recent years.

Small also added, however, that van Gisbergen’s Chicago triumph has sparked a bit of a frenzy, plus plenty of rekindled intrigue back home.

“I think the people would love it down there,” Small said. “There’s a huge amount of interest, and then I’ve had so many messages all week from people just saying the media coverage this week has been out of control for NASCAR racing. It’s just, everybody’s all-in on what happened was Shane and everything, and that’s all anybody’s talking about. So, that’s certainly given it a bump, but yeah, there’s a huge fan base out there, and there’s still a lot of diehard NASCAR fans left from the ’80s and ’90s and early 2000s, when they used to run the oval down there as well. So I think definitely, it would be well-received.”

Small and his No. 19 group’s shorter-term focus back in the States rests with a more traditional NASCAR venue for this Sunday’s Quaker State 400 (7 p.m. ET, USA, NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM) at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The race officially signifies the start of the Cup Series season’s second half, and just eight events remain in the regular season.

So far, Small & Co. have had reason to cheer, since Truex heads the Cup Series standings with two victories to his credit. With a playoff berth locked up, Small says the team’s prep hasn’t shifted ahead to the postseason just yet. There remains a push toward the Regular Season Championship and the buffer of 15 playoff points that accompany that title.

“Same stuff, as we always do — one week at a time. We just try and go to every event and get the maximum out of it,” Small says. “In our mind, we go to every race still trying to win, and if we can’t do that, it’s how do we score as many points as possible and execute on all the things that we can control ourselves, you know what I mean? So there’s so many things that are out of our control, that can kind of happen on the weekend as well, that can derail your race. So the aim right now is just to try and win some more races, get more bonus points and really try and clinch the regular-season points because you know that comes with the 15 bonus points.

“It’s so tight at the top now, so anything can happen. You might finish first or ninth, who the hell knows? So there’s some tricky races coming up here with Atlanta and you’ve still got another speedway race (in Daytona) after that. So we’ll see, but hopefully we can get a couple more wins and set ourselves up.”

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