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2-Headed Monster: If Martin Truex Jr. Fails to Make Championship 4, Is James Small on Hot Seat?

Since winning the regular season championship, Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team have at best underwhelmed. Either by design or destiny, speed and the No. 19 have been at odds with each other – earning just one top-15 finish since the playoffs began last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The one race where they did appear to be the car to beat, they were the first car out with a blown tire sending Truex into the wall on lap 3. Currently tied for the final transfer spot with teammate Denny Hamlin, if Truex fails to advance to the Championship 4, is crew chief James Small on the hot seat after a revival season of sorts that saw three wins and regular season championship that allowed them to stumble their way into the Round of 8?

This week Chase Folsom and Taylor Kornhoff dig into the stats to make their respective case.

You’re Killin’ Me, Smalls…

As the 2023 season comes to a close, what seemed to be another season with Truex as the perennial championship favorite has suddenly shifted into a massive collapse for Truex and the No. 19 team. Although the team is still in the Round of 8 for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, regular-season champion Truex has struggled mightily throughout the playoffs, and with Truex re-signed for the ‘24 season, many have begun to wonder if crew chief James Small is on the hot seat.

I’m here to tell you, if he’s not, he should be. 

For those who don’t know, Truex was very successful with former crew chief Cole Pearn. The pairing racked up 24 wins and the 2017 championship in just five years together from 2015-’19, but Pearn decided to call it a career after the 2019 season. Small was tabbed as the replacement, but the pairing has never been able to live up to the standard that Pearn and Truex once had. 

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The pairing got off to a slow start in 2020, with Truex only picking up one win on the season, his lowest win total on a season since he began driving Joe Gibbs Racing equipment back in 2016, as Furniture Row Racing had a strong partnership with JGR. Many wrote it off as just struggles gaining chemistry for the two but it was hard to ignore the significant drop in dominance from Truex that we had become accustomed to. 

The pair put up good numbers in 2021, winning four races and finishing runner up in the standings, but it was back to struggles and turmoil in 2022. For the first time since 2014, Truex went winless in a season and missed the Cup Series playoffs entirely. While some of that can be credited to Truex struggling to adjust to the Next Gen car, part of that blame has to go on Small, as for much of the season, the performance and raw pace simply wasn’t there for Truex all season long.

Finally, we get to 2023. The season has been full of ups and downs for Truex and Small, as screaming matches on the radio between the two at Richmond Raceway and Dover Motor Speedway highlighted what some thought was the beginning of the end for the duo.

The pair then managed to reel off three wins though the middle portion of the season, and win the regular-season championship, solidifying the No. 19 team as championship favorites. From there, everything unraveled, as seven races into the playoffs, Truex just picked up his first top-15 finish in two months, dating all the way back to Watkins Glen International in August. 

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With an average finish in the first two rounds of the playoffs of 21.34, Truex has scraped by thanks to all of the playoff points the team racked up in the regular season, and is still alive in the playoffs. But after another questionable call by Small at Las Vegas, it seems that there might be time for a change at JGR.

Everything listed above is proof that the duo just hasn’t exactly performed that well together; add in the screaming matches and the seemingly lack of trust from Truex towards Small, and it’s definitely fair to say that something needs to change. There were excuses used for the performance in 2020 and 2022, but a playoff collapse like this is inexcusable, and should Truex be eliminated at Martinsville Speedway, Small very well could get the ax.

A playoff collapse like this would be one of the all-time worst collapses in the playoff era, and even rival the likes of Kyle Busch in 2008 during the Chase era. Outside of Kansas, there have been no mechanical failures or bad luck, the No. 19 had just been plain slow, no questions asked.

In every other sport, a collapse like this calls for change, usually the firing of the head coach. In this case it’s no different, Small is the head coach, Truex is the star quarterback, and if the two aren’t getting along, and it’s not working, then it might be time for a change on top of the No. 19’s pit box in 2024. –Chase Folsom

James Smalls Has Restored Truex to Relevance

Martin Truex Jr. has by all accounts produced an exceptionally bad playoff run thus far in 2023. While the stat totals since his separation from 2017 championship winning crew chief Cole Pearn are down, I do not think it is grounds for extensively criticizing or ejecting James Small if they do not make the Championship 4.

It’s too easy to focus on the negative when in reality the pairing has accomplished a lot together. In the four years they have been together they have won a combined eight races and earned 73 top 10s. Only four active full-time Cup Series drivers can say they have bested both stats in the same time frame: Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, and Denny Hamlin.

One could easily make a case that each of those drivers are the very best each manufacturer has to offer and Harvick sneaks in there purely from his 2020 season alone. While it may not look like it from a glance, Truex is still one of the most elite drivers in the sport, and at several times during his run with Small he could have been adequately labeled the best in the sport at the time.

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If you look deeper into his stats, Truex very often has popped off several wins before going into a lull in performance and relevancy, even in his time with Pearn and prior.

For example, he won three races in a six-race span in September of 2016 and only won one other race that year and it was at Charlotte, months before. While he was very consistent in the 2017 season, Truex won most of his races nearing the end of the season when it really mattered. In 2019 he won four races in an eight-race span and won nothing else for the rest of the year. A similar stat in 2021 proves that momentum is huge for Truex and has been a common theme throughout his career, and now is no exception. In 2023 he captured all of his victories this season within a two-month span.

With Truex, the highs are very, very high, and the lows are always seen as rock bottom in comparison.

This season, the duo has conquered the regular-season championship, and they were once again one of the most consistent teams throughout the year.

Some may take issue with some of the rather pointed conversation on the radio during the race between the two as disharmony brewing.

For that, all I want to say is that Truex has always been a hothead on the radio, even since his days driving for Michael Waltrip Racing when he wanted to fire his entire pit crew on the radio in 2011 and he was often the same way with Pearn. If they ever had a real problem with each other, they wouldn’t have been paired up for the last four years. Those heavily criticizing Small certainly do have a point that it’s the NASCAR championship playoffs and this is a performance-based industry, but sometimes sticking with what you have and improving it is worse than taking a risk on something that may be far inferior.

While getting rid of him would probably be seen as appropriate in some Truex fans’ eyes, tears will flow from them when they see how much worse it will be when he has to go through the same adjustment process, except even older and farther out of his prime.

Small may have made some questionable calls upon the pit box and there has been a backtrack in performance from Truex over the course of a decade, but there are so many factors at play that in no way could it ever be attributed solely to James Small to a degree that calls for him being on the hot seat. – Taylor Kornhoff

About the author

Chase began working with Frontstretch in the spring of 2023 as a news writer, while also helping fill in for other columns as needed. Chase is now the main writer and reporter for Frontstretch.com's CARS Tour coverage, a role which began late in 2023.  Aside from racing, some of Chase's other hobbies include time in the outdoors hunting and fishing, and keeping up with all things Philadelphia sports related.

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