DOVER, Del. (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. snapped at his crew chief over the radio during a mid-race call that left the 2017 NASCAR champion chasing the leaders instead of being out front.
James Small fired back at his driver to, let’s just say, shut the heck up.
“What we did was correct,” Small said on the radio. “Keep driving please.”
Truex listened and did so — all the way to victory lane at Dover Motor Speedway on Monday.
The mid-race kerfuffle was not the first time Truex and Small squabbled during a race. And while that kind of fiery relationship in the heat of the moment between a driver and his crew chief is common in NASCAR, their relationship has been under scrutiny after a couple of underachieving years at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“I’ve got to tell you, he’s had some tough breaks in the past year on the way things have played out,” Truex said. “It’s a tough job sitting up there to make those calls.”
The job is tougher on Small because of who he replaced.
Truex blossomed from journeyman driver into NASCAR superstar under the guidance of former crew chief Cole Pearn, who were first paired at now-defunct Furniture Row Racing and made the jump together to JGR in 2019. Pearn led Truex to the title race in four of their five years together, including their last three seasons together. From 2016 to their final year together in 2019, the duo won 23 races, best among all driver-crew chief combos over that time.
After all that success, almost any new crew chief would have been a tough fit for Truex. Pearn had no ego, wore a T-shirt on the pit box and had a similar low-key style as Truex. He almost never made mistakes, built the best cars and rescued Truex from career oblivion.
Small, a native of Melbourne, Australia, and a Pearn disciple, is a first-time Cup crew chief without a track record that made him at times an easy target when Truex lashes out.
Small and Truex won just one race in 2020 before winning four in 2021. But Truex slogged through 2022, easily his worst season since before Pearn came onboard and went winless with just four top-five finishes.
Truex opened his 18th full season with an exhibition victory in the Busch Light Clash in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in early February. But tension bubbled last month at Richmond over heated radio conversation because of a doomed pit stop — Small insisted then their relationship was “good as gold.”
As for the brief flare-up at Dover, Small said he apologized to Truex.
“I was calm all race, but he was killing me through the middle there because it’s hard,” Small said. “He can’t see what’s happening in the race, as well, with the other cars and the lap times and everything.”
Truex and his younger brother Ryan, who won Saturday’s second-tier race, became the fifth set of brothers in NASCAR history to win on the same race weekend.
Truex’s contract was up at the end of the season and flirted with retirement before he eventually signed an extension. After Truex’s triumph at Dover snapped a 54-race winless streak, team owner Joe Gibbs made it clear he wants Truex to stick around.
“We are constantly talking to Martin about next year,” Gibbs said. “We want him to stay with us as long as we can convince him to do that. I think the best way of doing that is winning races, or have a chance to win a championship. I think that’s the best sales job we can do.”
Dover certainly helped the cause.
So did the way the No. 19 team ended up winning the race. Truex had led the race late when a caution led to a final pit stop for cars on the lead lap. Small called for two tires rather than four, gambling that track position was more important with seven laps left.
Sure enough, Truex restarted first and held off a hard-charging Ross Chastain, who told his crew he needed four tires, and won by a half-second.
“A lot of times it’s a 50/50 deal, like today, two or four,” Truex said. “If you’re the leader and you do four, then somebody is probably going to take two, and what if you don’t win, then you look like an idiot.”
Truex just looked like a winner.
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