Monday, September 12, 2016

Right Sides Only: Notes from the Federated Auto Parts 400 Winning Crew Chief, Mike Wheeler

by Stacey Owens

Home field advantage matters in the sports world, and it doesn't matter whether it's a pee-wee baseball team playing the team from the other side of the county or a driver who's racing on NASCAR's biggest stage. Just ask Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin has banked three wins this season, and the latest win in the Federated Auto Parts 400 just happens to have been at his home track: Richmond International Raceway.

Crew chief Mike Wheeler was excited about the victory.

"Obviously, this win is pretty big because it's Denny's home track. Haven't won here in a long time, so it's been on our calendar to actually perform here and go into the Chase pretty hot," Wheeler said. 
"I didn't think I'd come into the weekend winning the pole and being four laps shy of leading the most laps, winning the race. It's really good that we put a total team effort in between pit stops, strategy, A team, B team, everybody involved. It was a good team effort to win this race.
"Pretty happy with where we started the year off with a win, coming back with a win. I think we were fourth in points for this segment. Pretty proud of that. Looking forward to the Chase."
Credit: Carol D'Agostino for Skirts and Scuffs
Hamlin's team, as well as the other Joe Gibbs Racing teams, are now preparing to run well in the opening three races of The Chase so that all of them can make strides toward the championship at Homestead. Does Wheeler have anything he can share about those preparations?

"I don't think you hold back much right now. Obviously you continue to develop to be better. But honestly, the last month or so, we've been making sure we try to maximize everything we have," Wheeler said.

"I will admit, after we got the win, I was in R&D mode for a bit, like I got this crazy idea, let's try it. A couple of them worked, three or four of them were failures. But honestly, once we got down in points, I was a little embarrassed. Really made sure to get everybody together and run into the Chase strong.
"[I'm] pretty happy. We had like eight straight top 10s. Best Denny has ever had with consistency. With that, our pit crew is knocking it out of the park right now. We're doing good on Fridays and Saturdays. I think our qualifying average is about as good as anybody. Finally got a pole. Happy about that.
"But I can't say I'm holding back. I'm making sure that we get into the first round by running good, making sure we maximize what we can, and obviously try to perform at the highest level and win some races," he explained. 

As happy as the No. 11 FedEx Racing team was to have won at "home," the track was a bit of an unwelcoming host because it destroyed rear tires all over the track for several drivers.

"You know, truthfully, it's always been part of our sport. The XFINITY side last year, I lived it every week. You're at tire limits," Wheeler said. "So many tracks you went to, you knew you had to make tires live 50 laps, 40 laps, 60 laps, whatever it was. This week, NASCAR and Goodyear limit you ... I think it was basically 10 sets, nine stops. We got 40 laps per set, we had to average.
"Sure enough, this is the first race in many, many years that we had caution after caution. Tires mattered here. You'd lose a second or two in 10 or 15 laps. You didn't want to be sitting out there on old tires when guys had new tires behind you. I know the 42 put tires on after seven laps and came from 14th to, like, fifth in three or four laps.
"It's part of racing. It actually makes it partially good. But what happened there at the end, most guys only had one or two sets left to do 120 laps or whatever it was. We had to salvage them best we could because you wanted to make sure you had a tire there in case you had a caution with 10 to go. Sure enough there was a caution with three to go. I thought we were going to pit. So many cars on the lead lap, I knew we had to stay out. Fortunately that worked out," Wheeler explained.

Team owner Joe Gibbs was pretty happy about that decision, too.

"I thought tonight it was a total team effort," Gibbs said. "Wheels made a great call keeping Denny out. I didn't think we could hold them off, particularly on that last restart. They were right behind us. I thought that would be tough. Denny drove his heart out. It was a total team effort."
Credit: Carol D'Agostino for Skirts and Scuffs
"Our sport is a team sport. It takes everybody performing, including pit stops and everything," Gibbs said. "The Lord blessed us with a great night. We're just proud in particular for everybody back at the race shop, J.D., everybody back there. We just say a big thanks to them because they work so hard during the week and they really don't get to enjoy things like tonight. They don't get a chance to be here. So we're going to try to celebrate a little bit with them on Tuesday, then we start holding our breath next week."

The JGR teams won't be the only ones holding their collective breath next week. Twelve other drivers begin the march toward a championship at Chicagoland Speedway next Sunday. Be sure to bookmark for all the information you'll need for the next 10 weeks. 


     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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