Monday, February 22, 2016

Right Sides Only: Notes from Daytona 500 Winning Crew Chief, Mike Wheeler

By Stacey Owens

The first race of the 2016 season was full of, well, firsts.

Denny Hamlin wasn't the only member of the No. 11 FedEx Racing Team who won his first Daytona 500. His crew chief, Mike Wheeler, though a long-time member of the team, won his first regular-season race ever as the crew chief for the JGR team.

Wheels, as Hamlin calls him, worked tirelessly for several years to get to the top of the box and is thrilled with the photo-finish results of his first time calling the shots.
Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

"It's pretty crazy, that's for sure. You work your butt off all these years trying to get to this spot. You put in the hours. You work your guts out trying to be the best. Finally have the opportunity to be the crew chief, lead the team, it's really satisfying to see everybody so happy, sponsors so happy between Toyota and FedEx and everybody.
            
"Seeing Denny say it's his biggest race, biggest thing he's got, makes me happy.
           
"I'm a small part of this. Racing has a lot to do with the driver, the actual car, people that build that car, with the spotter involved. Just really happy to be a small part of that," Wheeler said.

The new chief has worked for Joe Gibbs Racing for several years in an engineer's role but has aspired to sit atop the war wagon for many of those years. Hamlin discussed Wheeler's ambition.

"I knew he had aspirations to be a crew chief in the Cup Series. You can only be a great engineer for so long before other teams are going to come knocking.
             
"Joe gave him that opportunity in the XFINITY Series. Even though I probably premature promised him the job, a little soon, you know, I was happy that Gibbs said, 'Let's just take you through the same process that all of our other crew chiefs had.'
            
"I'm glad he was only gone for a year.
             
"Honestly, I love all the crew chiefs I've ever worked with. Mike Ford, Darian Grubb, Dave Rogers, all of them did really great things. We all did great things together. There's something about Wheels that I felt was right. Our communication is right.
             
"I think a lot of it is we're friends first. Him being my crew chief, it's a mere sidebar for our relationship. So this is one that I'm very proud and happy for him. He's got a new family of his own that he gets to go back to. Like I said, this is my guy," Hamlin explained.

Now that he's in the position he's dreamed about for years, was Wheeler nervous about calling the biggest race of the year?

Credit: Logan Stewart for Skirts and Scuffs
"I wasn't too nervous. I was actually amazed how not nervous I was. I don't want to say calm. But Denny reassured me weeks and years ago that I'm his guy, that I can do the job. Joe's had my back for a long time since I've been here.
             
"I wasn't nervous because I knew I had a chance of doing it. All I had to do was do the job.
             
"Speed racing is a little bit different from intermediate and short track stuff where I'm a small part of it. I'm the lead guy, but the driver and the spotter are the guys that can really dictate the race.
             
Looking back on the Great American Race from Victory Lane, would Wheeler have done anything differently?
 
"Watching the last 20 laps, I thought the race was over. I knew we won for Toyota, and that was a big thing for us. I knew we had to swallow it because we messed up as a group. We were going to get a top five out of that and I was okay with that. But I was pretty calm on the box because I knew my work was pretty easy compared to other races. You have enough time to think about a plan. We had a plan for a couple days now how we were going to do this.
             
"But watching him wheel it the last lap, that's my boy. He was getting it and he made it happen," Wheeler said. 

With Wheeler at the helm now, he and Hamlin might just be the series' new dynamic duo. They're off to a pretty great start. 

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   Stacey Owens lives just outside Music City USA. She's always wanted to be a NASCAR writer, so working as a columnist and support editor for Skirts and Scuffs allows her to live that dream every single weekend.
    The sole NASCAR enthusiast in her home, she's hopeful that one of her three daughters might also harbor an appreciation for NASCAR, but it isn't looking good so far.
    This self-admitted grammar nerd also loves country music, though she can't carry a tune; collegiate football, though she needs a lot of work on her spiral; and Kentucky basketball, even though at 6' tall, she's never played a day in her life.

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