By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Entering his 16th Daytona 500, Martin Truex, Jr. will be strapping in the No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry for the first time without long time crew chief Cole Pearn.
Ushering a new era will be James Small, who will be on top of the No. 19 pit box for the first time. However, there isn’t much of a void since Pearn ended his NASCAR career during the off-season. In fact, it’s business as usual for Truex who’ll look to have a much better 500 after being a complete afterthought last year, finishing 35th while the rest of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates swept the top-three.
“I felt real comfortable with it. It felt like Cole (Pearn) just stayed home for the weekend, which he did, I guess,” Truex on having Small leading the parade. “Yeah, everything seems cool. He seems comfortable with his new role and all the decisions that are on his shoulders now, and so far he’s done a good job.”
While the true test between Truex and Small begins next Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Small is no stranger to Truex as he spent the last two years as the lead engineer. That proved to be a massive success as Truex won 11 races, including seven alone in 2019 which was his first year with JGR.
“I think James has been right there on the front lines with us the past few seasons,” Truex said. “Obviously he wasn’t out in the spotlight because he was an engineer and not a crew chief, but I feel like he’s really doing the same things as before, and our communication really hasn’t changed a whole lot. I just feel like it’s business as usual.
“From that standpoint, it feels comfortable, and he’s done a good job of just keeping things the way we’ve always done them. Not trying to change, not trying to be somebody ‑‑ change the team up to be the way he wants it. He knows what we have works, and his approach is so similar to Cole’s that it’s really been seamless so far. Hopefully that continues to be the case.”
The new car that’s expected to come out in 2021 may prove to be a blessing in disguise for Truex due to Small’s background prior to NASCAR. Small spent eight seasons working in the Virgin Australia Supercars where he was a successful engineer, highlighted with a 2013 Bathurst 1000 victory.
When asked about how having Small’s experience in cars the sport haven’t seen before could be a benefit over time, Truex found it interesting as he isn’t familiar with the cars from Australia’s premiere series and no doubt 2021 will be an absolute game changer on how the cars will drive with a independent rear suspension.
“I don’t know how similar the cars that we’re going to have are to those, but certainly his experience, I’m sure there’s things that he’ll think of or say, hey, we used to do this maybe, and that could help us possibly, especially on road courses,” Truex said. “It’s going to be interesting to try to figure that thing out, it’s going to be so different than what we’re all used to in NASCAR, and it will be the first time we have independent rear suspension, and that doesn’t sound like a big change, but it’s huge.
“I mean, we go from a straight axle that we’ve had forever and ever with trailing arms to independent rear suspension, it’s going to be interesting to see how the engineers translate all that stuff, and how do we make the cars feel like we want them to. I don’t know. It’s possible that it feels way different. It’ll be interesting.”
Truex is one three Cup Series champions that have yet to win “The Great American Race” with Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski being the others. Among the three, Truex was the closest as in 2016 he came 0.010 seconds shy of capturing the sport’s biggest prize. Something that still hurts Truex, yet he hasn’t lost sleep over the fact he’s still attempting to conquer the 500-mile spectacle.
Not just trying to conquer Daytona, superspeedway races in general as both Daytona and Talladega are his least favorite tracks with his poor luck contributing to his answer, compared to the much more demanding Darlington and Homestead being his personal favorites.
“It is the big one. Everybody wants to win it. I’m no different. But I mean, I don’t lose sleep at night because I haven’t won it. I don’t think about it, I guess, any differently than any other race, other than when I come here, I don’t really worry about points,” Truex said. “I just try to figure out a way to win it. Obviously I haven’t done that yet. I think the biggest thing for me is just trying to get to the end. Every time we are around at the finish of one of these races, we’re in the mix. We have a shot.
“It’s just so hard ‑‑ I’ve had such a hard time trying to find a way to finish Superspeedway races. I’ve tried everything, riding around, racing hard, staying in the front. The (Busch Clash) I’m running third and I get wrecked on a restart. It’s like no matter what I do, I can’t find a way to finish. I’m never the guy that caused the wrecks, but I’m always the guy in the middle of them. It’s very, very frustrating, very frustrating, and I don’t really know what to do about it.
“That’s really my focus every time we come here is just trying to figure that out. How do I get to the end? I know if we get to the end, we’re going to have a chance. So hopefully this weekend we can figure it out.”
Time will tell if the new driver/crew chief combination will come out of the gate strong or the concerns some people feel that Truex was only good with Pearn begins.
Green flag for the 62nd Daytona 500 is scheduled to start at 3:18 pm EST with the race being live on Fox.