Monday, August 8, 2016

Right Sides Only: Notes from Cheez-It 355 Winning Crew Chief, Mike Wheeler

by Stacey Owens

Ever heard the expression, "Close, but no cigar"? Well, the No. 11 FedEx team might as well have lit up in Victory Lane, because they finally closed the deal at a road course.

Oh, they have come close a few times, but Mike Wheeler's strategy to move Denny Hamlin to the front of the field as the laps wound down at Watkins Glen International got the driver his first road course victory.

"Yeah, I remember in '07 when we actually ran top three with Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. Thought we had a shot," Wheeler said. "Denny will tell you he had a chance to move Jeff Gordon for the win and didn't because he thought he would win another road course race. That was 2007.
            
"Coming back to Sonoma this year, you want to get back running good, back up front in road courses. We finished second there. Real close.
            
"Come this weekend, high hopes, had a great car. Have a great team. Had some momentum with road course races. I knew our teammates were a little bit faster before today. I thought the 18 was really the class of the field. But at the end of the day we took a top-three car and had good pit stops, good strategy. Strategy worked out in our favor. Our spotters did a really good job all day. We brought home the trophy."
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs

The day might have ended much differently for the No. 11 team, considering how it began.

Hamlin was experiencing back pain, and the team actually had Erik Jones standing by as a substitute driver if Hamlin decided he couldn't run the entire race.

"Yeah, I mean, I got the text this morning when he woke up. He was in trouble. He said it," Wheeler said. "It was like, you know, not something you really want to hear. You know you got good cars, good teammates, track position to start.
            
"But end of the day, I know he mans up when he needs to. I almost want to say if he knew he didn't have a winning car, he might do something different. But I know he definitely gets that attitude going in the car when he has a winning car, can run up front and tough it out.
            
"I know he's in pain. I know if we were practicing today, he wouldn't be practicing. Saw him in the drivers' meeting. I sat next to him. While it's uncomfortable, he couldn't even sit down. He stood up.  You could just tell he was in pain. Nothing you could do today to fix it.
            
"He's been running pretty hard lately, been busy with the sport. He's had this happen before years ago. But he knows the situation he was in and he knows he's got to tough it out, and he did."
Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images

Back pain aside, Hamlin ran a flawless race and credited the win to his pit crew.

"It was a great day, obviously, on the racetrack," Hamlin said. "It was an eventful race, but uneventful race for us. We executed perfectly. Didn't make any mistakes on pit road. Pit crew did great. We had a great strategy there at the end. Made a great call to stay out, hoping for those caution laps that we needed, knowing that the trend was we were going to get those caution laps. That allowed us to make it on fuel.
            
"There at the end, we really just executed on our restarts. That's been key. You got to get through the first couple corners on restarts. Really for us, those two guys were going for it. They slipped up and opened up a door for us to go through there and win."

With a win in the Daytona 500 and now a win on a road course, Hamlin can focus on the tracks ahead in the Chase. You may remember that he's come up short in the championship standings a couple of times already. Is this the year that "close, but no cigar" becomes a thing of the past for the No. 11 team? 

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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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