Blake Harris

Photo: Joe Gibbs Racing

James Small named Martin Truex Jr.’s crew chief

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When Martin Truex Jr. greets his crew chief every morning, don’t be surprised if he starts off by saying “G’day, mate.”

One week after Cole Pearn announced he was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing as crew chief on Truex’s No. 19 Toyota Camry, the organization announced Thursday that Melbourne, Australia native James Small has been promoted from Truex’s lead engineer to Pearn’s replacement as crew chief.

Small, 36, is no stranger to Truex, Pearn or the No. 19 team as a whole, having served in various capacities the past three seasons with Truex, dating back to Truex’s last two seasons with Furniture Row Racing in the No. 78 (2017-2018).

When Truex, Pearn and the team moved from the now-defunct FRR to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2019 season, Small came along and was elevated to lead engineer, helping Truex to a series-best seven wins, as well as 15 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes.

Truex finished second to JGR teammate Kyle Busch in the final season standings. After Pearn’s departure, Truex discussed what he was looking for in a new crew chief. He apparently has found that with Small’s ascension to that role.

“This is an incredible opportunity,” Small said in a JGR media release. “Having the confidence of Coach (team owner Joe Gibbs), Martin and everyone at JGR means a lot to me.

“I moved to the United States six years ago to work in NASCAR and I wanted to work my way up to become a crew chief. I’m ready for this and I am excited about working with Martin and the foundation we have in place on the 19 team with the group of guys we have.”

Truex took to Twitter to talk about Small’s promotion and his hopes for how the pair will fare in the upcoming 2020 season.

Truex also said in a media release, “I know James well and feel very comfortable with him. I feel like we approach racing very similar. He and Cole (Pearn) have a lot of similarities. It’s a natural fit and I’m really excited about it. I think he’ll do a great job.”

While this will be Small’s first time as a full-time Cup crew chief, he previously filled in for two races as crew chief for Erik Jones in the latter’s Cup rookie season in 2017 with Furniture Row Racing.

Small displayed his prowess atop the pit box almost immediately, leading Jones to a third-place finish at Michigan International Speedway and a 10th-place finish at Watkins Glen International.

Small spent that entire 2017 season as Jones’ lead engineer with the No. 77 team before moving to Truex’s team in 2018.

Prior to coming to the U.S. and NASCAR, Small spent eight years working in his native Australia in the V8 Supercars Championship. His first role in NASCAR was in an engineering role from 2014-2016 with Richard Childress Racing.

Later Thursday afternoon, Small was a guest on SiriusXM Speedway with Dave Moody on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Here’s a tweet of some of his comments:

Joe Gibbs Racing also announced that Jeff Curtis has joined the organization and will assume Small’s former role as lead engineer for Truex’s car. In addition, the team also announced Blake Harris will return as car chief for the No. 19.

Pearn also tweeted about Small’s promotion:

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Friday 5: Turnaround in 2018 has Aric Almirola looking ahead to 2019

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Aric Almirola‘s performance this season at Stewart-Haas Racing provided validation to a driver who had not raced in the best Cup equipment before 2018.

Almirola improved 24 spots from last year to finish a career-high fifth in the points, the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in Cup since the elimination format debuted in 2014. 

Part of the reason for Almirola’s jump was because he missed seven races last year after being injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway and finishing 29th in points for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola also showed what he could do in his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“For me, there was always some amount of self-doubt, how much am I a contributor to the performance not being where I want it to be,” Almirola said this week in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “Sometimes you have to take that long, hard look in the mirror. I think for me … with my future and career being uncertain, one thing I was really hopeful for was that I would get an opportunity in a really good car to be able to know, hey, is it me or not? If I get that opportunity, can I make the most of it? Can I compete?

“I was fortunate enough that things worked out for me that I was able to get that opportunity. Some people never get that opportunity. But I was able to get that opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. I’ve got the best equipment in the garage area, and I was able to go out and compete. I ran up front and won a race and finished in the top five in points. It was a great year for me personally.”

Almirola nearly won in his first race with SHR this season. He led the Daytona 500 on the last lap before contact from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall and Dillon to the victory.

Almirola was in position to win at Dover when a caution for teammate Clint Bowyer came out in the final laps. Almirola pitted and then wrecked on the restart. Almirola won at Talladega when he passed teammate Kurt Busch after Busch ran out of fuel on the final lap.

“Now that we’ve got a year under our belt, and I feel like we achieved quite a bit, we can really focus in on our weaknesses and where we didn’t perform at our best and try to make that better. We can circle back to some of the tracks we ran really well at and figure out what we need to do to capitalize on some of those races where we felt like we could have won and didn’t do it. It’s very reasonable to have higher expectations going into next year.”

2. Not going anywhere

For those who wondered — and there were some whispers in Miami — Brad Keselowski will be back with Team Penske for the 2019 season.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Keselowski said Wednesday in Las Vegas of questions at the end of the season that he might retire. “As far as I’m aware (all is good). I will be at Team Penske driving the No. 2 car this year to the best of my knowledge. I’m under contract to do so.”

Recall that Keselowski was outspoken in June about the package that was used in the All-Star Race and warned then that “if we overdose on that particular form of racing, it will have … a long-term negative effect.”

Keselowski suggested in June that fewer talented drivers would come to NASCAR over time if the All-Star package became the primary one. NASCAR adopted a package for 2019 similar to what was used in the All-Star Race but added more horsepower than was used in that race.

One change for Keselowski is that he’ll have a new spotter. Joey Meier announced Nov. 19 that he would not be spotting for Keselowski in 2019, saying he had “been told my time as the 2 Car spotter has come to the checkered flag.” Keselowski said that a new hire hasn’t been made yet.

3. Offseason plans

What does a racer do when the season ends? Race, of course. At least that is what Alex Bowman will do.

He’ll compete in a midget at the Gateway Dirt Nationals today and Saturday at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams NFL team before they moved to Los Angeles.

Bowman also plans to run a midget at the Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget event Dec. 15 in the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin, Illinois in preparation for the Chili Bowl in January in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also has entered a midget for C.J. Leary for the Chili Bowl, which will be Jan. 14-19.

Not every driver will race in the next few weeks.

Ryan Blaney says he’ll leave Saturday for Hawaii. It’s his first trip there.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but the group I was with wanted to go,” he said Wednesday in Las Vegas. “I would like to go somewhere other than America to try to change up the culture, but I think that’s enough of a culture change in Hawaii to experience new things.”

He also plans to do some snowboarding before being home in January when his sister gives birth to her child.

Erik Jones said he’ll do some ice fishing – “go sit out in the cold and look at a hole in the ice, it’s just relaxing for me.” He said he plans to spend time with family in Michigan enjoying the holidays.

Denny Hamlin said he’ll go to St. Barts for a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. “Just going down there for some vacation time in the next few weeks and after that just spend some time at home relaxing.”

Austin Dillon said he expects to be in a deer stand for some time before Christmas.

4. ‘Exciting’ move

Kyle Larson calls the pairing of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and the World of Outlaws in a doubleheader at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track in February “exciting” but he says a key will be track preparation.

When the K&N Pro Series West raced at the Vegas Dirt Track in September, the conditions were so dusty that it impacted the racing and viewing for fans.

“I think for them to both be able to showcase how cool the event is, the track needs to be right, the way it is prepped needs to be right,” Larson said this week. “That’s the only thing I”m nervous about, judging how the (K&N West) race went a few months ago.

“I just hope that the track is good so fans can get the opportunity to see some good racing in a few different series.”

5. Together again

Among those joining Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn in moving to Joe Gibbs Racing will be car chief Blake Harris and an engineer, Truex said in Las Vegas.

Having Pearn in the JGR shop should prove beneficial for all, Kyle Busch said.

“Adam (Stevens’) and Cole’s offices will be right next door to one another instead of being on a chat all the time,” Busch said of his crew chief and Pearn.

Busch likened Truex and Pearn helping the organization as much as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth did. Joe Gibbs Racing won 26 of 72 races in 2015-16 when both Edwards and Kenseth were there. 

Kevin Harvick wins Phoenix pole; Martin Truex Jr. car chief ejected

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Coming off the midweek penalty that stripped him of an automatic berth to the Championship 4, Kevin Harvick posted a lap of 139.340 mph to win the pole for the Cup race at Phoenix.

Suspended crew chief Rodney Childers, who watched qualifying from the shop in North Carolina, tweeted his approval.

Harvick beat fellow playoff contender Chase Elliott (139.152 mph) by .035 seconds.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (139.007), Ryan Blaney (138.867) and Alex Bowman (138.739) rounded out the top five.

Martin Truex Jr. failed inspection three times before qualifying so car chief Blake Harris was ejected from the garage. Truex also will lose 30 minutes in Saturday’s final practice. He posted a lap of 138.339 mph and qualified 13th.

Other playoff contenders: Kyle Busch (138.707 mph) qualified sixth, Joey Logano (138.254) qualified ninth, Kurt Busch (138.180) qualified 14th, Clint Bowyer (137.878) qualified 16th and Aric Almirola (137.720) qualified 18th.

Click here for the complete qualification results.