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June 14, 2024

No. 19 crew chief James Small reflects on Martin Truex Jr.: ‘A great friend and a great driver’

NEWTON, Iowa — Friday’s announcement that Martin Truex Jr. won’t continue as a full-time NASCAR driver after this season didn’t arrive as a major surprise, not after reports trickled out earlier in the week, and not after the 43-year-old driver’s ‘will-he-or-won’t-he’ dalliances with retirement in previous seasons. James Small, his crew chief on the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team, wasn’t among the shocked either, but he was also counted among those wishing his colleague well for his next chapter.

“We’ve been expecting this for the last two or three years or whatever, and we get the opposite decision. So yeah, it’s not really any surprise,” Small told “We would have loved for him to keep going another year. Ultimately, whatever makes him happy we support him.”

Truex made it official Friday that his 19th Cup Series season will be his last, outlining the plan to sunset his Hall of Fame-caliber career as NASCAR’s top tour arrives for its debut this weekend at Iowa Speedway. The news also signals an end to a long-running partnership with Small, who took the role as the No. 19 Toyota team’s crew chief in 2020 and was the lead engineer for Truex’s cars in the years before.

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Small’s thoughts about his driver’s legacy in the sport were shared by others in their tributes and commemorations, but his perspective as a hand-in-hand teammate atop the pit box had a personal touch, noting some of the what-ifs over the course of Truex’s career.

“You know, he’s incredible,” Small said from the Iowa track’s garage. “Obviously, he kind of flies under the radar, and that’s very much his personality. You look back on what he’s done since 2016, and the amount of races he’s won, he’s been one of the top two, top three drivers over that period. And, you know, you think a couple of things go a slightly different way or less errors, and he could be a four-time champion. It’s pretty simple, and we’d be talking about him in a completely different frame of mind. So yeah, he’s accomplished a lot, and he’s been very easy to work with from our standpoint. He leaves us alone, tells us what he needs and goes and does his thing and puts his trust in us. So from that standpoint, he’s very different, but he’s been a great friend and a great driver to work with and he’s very humble.”

Truex scored 32 of his 34 Cup Series victories after his career connected with Toyota affiliates Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing. Eight of those wins were with Small atop the pit box, and he points to a dominant triumph at Darlington in the spring of 2021 — leading 248 of 293 laps in a flat-black car — as one of his favorites. But other moments of resilience fill Small’s memory banks, as does Truex’s tenacity, which occasionally translated to fiery words through the team’s in-car communications.

“I think those things, and there’s been so many others through the years that just exemplify the true grit of our team and never-give-up attitude,” Small said. “As much as he likes to complain on the radio at times, he never quits, you know what I mean? He’s just as frustrated as anyone, and he will always keep trying to the very last lap, no matter what or how bad the day has been.”

Truex hinted in Friday’s announcement that he could still race in a part-time capacity after this season and that he will stay on in an ambassador’s role with JGR. His approach to the rest of the year, he says, won’t change. “I’m just going to do my job and do what I’ve always done,” Truex said.

Just 10 races remain in the regular season, starting with Sunday’s Iowa Corn 350 (7 p.m. ET, USA, NBC Sports App, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) for Truex to seal a playoff berth and a final run at a Cup Series championship to match the one he claimed in 2017. He ranks fifth in the Cup points, and led the standings for three weeks earlier this year; a recent patch of three finishes of 25th or worse in the last four weeks has set Truex back from his earlier perch.

MORE: Iowa weekend schedule

Still, Truex has been close to scratching the win column this season, including his battle among the top three last weekend at Sonoma Raceway before his car sputtered out of gas on the final set of turns. Small says his confidence in the No. 19 team’s performance hasn’t wavered, and though Truex has insisted that his mentality will be “business as usual” the rest of the way, Small suspects there will be a sense of relief in the season’s second half.

“Up until the last three or four weeks, we were leading the points you know, and then we’ve been on a little bit of a hard stretch here,” Small said. “As you say, things go a different way and we could have three wins — definitely two, if we didn’t get late-race cautions at the complete wrong time. So, I think this will take a lot off his mind. I know that decision’s really been weighing on him, and he says it doesn’t affect him but you know, it does. And even the last week he’s been way more relaxed to talk to, and I think it’s a big weight off his shoulders. So hopefully, we can get over this stretch of everything going wrong and be strong from here on out.”