Right Sides Only: Notes from the Bojangles Southern 500 Winning Crew Chief, Mike Wheeler

by Stacey Owens

Wheels has a wheelman at the wheel.

After the race, crew chief Mike Wheeler talked about how well his team and his driver performed, despite the mistake Denny Hamlin made in missing the entrance to pit road, which cost him 10 seconds off the leaders.

"The race played out very fortunate for us. We didn't really struggle too much. We ran top 5 all night. The guys did a really good job on pit road. We were doing well. I'm proud of the fact that we had good speed and Denny was able to run up front. I was getting a little nervous that the 78 looked a little faster. So we're going to just keep battling and try to get him at the end, then it came down to strategy. Tried to make sure we made not the wrong call, so we were doing our numbers, and I seen [sic] everybody else pitting, and ultimately just made sure we tried to give our driver the best chance to win, even though it might not work in our favor.
"I didn't think once he missed pit road we had a great chance anymore. I knew he gave up 10 seconds on the leaders, and ultimately as much as I was trying to coach him to get mad and get even with everyone else, I knew it was hard to make up 10 seconds over one stint, but I'm proud of the fact that the car was that fast. Denny is obviously a wheel man here. If you don't win here with Denny, you probably didn't have a good enough car. Seeing him coming from 10 seconds back in one stint, I was really happy with that effort, and I knew we probably had the fastest car," Wheeler said.

That pit road mistake didn't set well with Wheeler. In fact, he was just plain mad.
"I was mad. You know, it's one of those things, I try to stay focused on what's going on, forward and not what just happened. I saw we ran a 41-second lap and I know that's hard to overcome when we're trying to do math on one and two seconds of sequences and pit stop gains. But I noticed when we came out that the 41 and 78 were battling each other pretty hard and losing a half second a lap doing that, so I knew that as long as they were battling that hard and hurting their tires, they were going to be in trouble to make it the whole distance without falling off really hard. We got within 10 seconds, and I'm like, 'Okay, we should be leading right now,' but we still had about 35 to go, and I'm like, 'We've got a long time to go.' About 20 to go, we were within like five seconds, we were on a break-even with the leaders, but once we got within 15, I realized as much as Denny was pushing it, Truex was falling off even harder than he ever had all night.

"Seeing that, it was like, just keep trying to feed Denny information and get him to get up on it, and it went from a tenth or two a lap to four tenths a lap, and I knew the math would work out that we could win by two seconds. I thought we gave it up when some lapped car got in the way, and Denny gave him a big punt. I was hoping they'd let us race it out, but fortunately Truex had to push harder than he probably needed to and hurt his tires and ended up in the fence, and we drove by," Wheeler explained.

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Toward the end of a race, strategy has to be flexible. Wheels talked about the fluidity of his plans.

"Yeah, that's a good way to put it, definitely fluid. It's difficult because you can't go on last year's notes and lap times to see where you should be. Truthfully, I noticed early in the race, I believe it was end of segment 2, where Denny and Truex were definitely the best long-run cars. It was about 56 laps they were going on tires and a couple guys were dropping the anchor, and Denny and Truex were running them down, and it was apparent that our tire wear was great, or it looked better than the field. You heard comments about guys having cords and all that kind of stuff, and Denny managed his stuff well, and we worked separate on it, too -- but Denny manages his stuff very well. Yeah, I won't say anything else.
"So you know, the last stint when we were running top two or -- yeah, I think we were leading. I knew the moment the 78 short pitted us we could not come back around and be ahead of him. That caught us off guard earlier. We were going to pit in like two or three laps. I followed suit early in the race, and we came up behind him because you lose three or four seconds of a lap time here. So I knew our best option was not bite on the other guy short pitting that thing because they short pitted the stint by 10 or 15 laps. Some guys were going two laps and we were going to do one stop.
"It was painful to do, and I'm glad it worked out in our favor, but I made sure we just stayed diligent on our numbers and make sure -- when Denny was in clean air he was able to run good lap times on long runs, but I knew mathematically it should work out if the cautions don't fall or fall in our favor.  I thought we were in trouble when we lost 10 seconds there, but ultimately I knew the other guys were going to have to save their tires to make the last 10 laps, and it worked out in our favor," Wheeler said.

Fans who have become accustomed to seeing lots of cautions may have been surprised when they realized that this Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway was the first race in 11 years that ended with more than 100 laps of consecutive green-flag racing.

Was Wheeler concerned about what to do if the caution flag came out?

"I think  a lot of the races go green now with the stages falling out the way they do and NASCAR letting things race out. It's great to see because it makes its own story lines. So as much as I thought someone might hit the fence, spin out, blow a tire, I knew we shouldn't try to call a race on that.  Ultimately you try to make sure that you position yourself to go the distance the best you can. Yeah, sometimes it doesn't go your way, but I wasn't going to take it away from us. I knew we had a good enough car and obviously a great enough driver, but I wanted to make sure we gave him a full opportunity to make the best long run car and driver and get there at the end.

"You know, you just can't use last year's data before the race. Someone said it's very fluid. It is, and we were calculating data live on the pit box, and I've got two young engineers that we've been together for three races now, so I'm really proud of that effort because they weren't wrong, they were right. But that big hiccup, it would have not shown up, but for him to come that far back as quickly as he did, it was pretty impressive," Wheeler said.

Hamlin is impressive. He's also the active driver with the most wins who doesn't have a championship title. The playoffs begin in a couple of weeks, and it's a sure bet that Hamlin and Wheeler will seek to change that fact, and be the first duo to hoist the new Monster Energy Series championship trophy.

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; Kentucky basketball, even though at 6' tall, she's never played a day in her life; and her husband who's supportive of her NASCAR obsession and tunes in with her every week... even if it's just to watch the flyover.

Right Sides Only: Notes from the Bojangles Southern 500 Winning Crew Chief, Mike Wheeler Right Sides Only: Notes from the Bojangles Southern 500 Winning Crew Chief, Mike Wheeler Reviewed by Stacey Owens on Monday, September 04, 2017 Rating: 5