Name: Mike Wheeler
Title: Crew Chief (NASCAR XFINITY Series)
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing, No. 20 Camry driven by multiple drivers (including Matt Kenseth, Erik Jones & Denny Hamlin)
DOB: Nov. 4, 1978 (36 years old)
Education: Kettering University (2002, Mechanical Engineering)
Hometown: Southhold, N.Y.
Residence: Huntersville, N.C.
When did you get started in racing?
“I got started in racing when I was about two or three years old. My dad raced street stocks and Late Models at Riverhead Raceway in New York. He raced until about the mid-80’s and then he started sponsoring guys with Wheels Garage in New York and I just kind of helped out with guys that he sponsored. He helped giving them shop equipment and time at the shop with the lift and tires and that kind of thing. I got involved with that, then got my NASCAR license when I was 14 and I was actually helping paint the car and wax it and clean it. I got into the pits when I was about 16 years old doing a Late Model for Eddie Densieski at Riverhead Raceway and then kind of took off from there.”
How did you get started in NASCAR?
“I wanted to drive like most guys did. My parents wanted me to go to college like most parents do. I ended up going to Kettering University in Michigan and during that I realized – I was pretty smart in school that I could actually do some more with the cars than drive them – so I was always going to Late Models and Modifieds through school and always kept that up. My last couple of years, I got hooked up with a Modified team and became their crew chief of a touring car. After a year up there, we ran the championship and a week later Dave Rogers (NSCS No. 11 crew chief) and Todd Meredith (JGR Chief Operating Officer) called me up and asked me to come down and engineer for the XFINITY side in 2002.”
What’s your most memorable victory?
“I want to say the first win with Denny Hamlin at Pocono, only because we weren’t supposed to win and we actually were the best car and had a flat tire, spun out and the car was all torn up, battery fell out of the thing – all sorts of damage. I can remember us coming back through the pack and running down the leader and Greg Biffle’s crew chief at the time told him we were a half-second faster than him at the time and we were running him down. He said, ‘That’s impossible.’ We ran him down and passed him and it was over. I remember that kind of feeling that we were that much better than everybody else. That was Denny’s first win there in 2006.”
What’s the most difficult part about being a crew chief?
“I’d say the hardest thing about being a crew chief is balancing being nice to the guys versus being mean to the guys. I always want to be nice to the guys and be everybody’s friend – want everyone to like me and at the same point there’s times when you have to be the boss and set people straight. We have a great group of guys, but I am worried about having to put the hammer down and set them straight – probably the hardest thing is knowing I’m being mean. It’s not something I enjoy doing, but it’s needed.”
What’s the best part about being a crew chief?
“The best part is winning, but I think the most fun about winning is seeing everybody else smiling in victory lane. It wasn’t something I anticipated being that much fun as just winning. We were on the Cup side and you’re a part of it – a big part of it, but when you win as a crew chief it seems like everybody is so happy and you see their work and their effort and it’s really enjoyable to see how happy everybody is.”
Do you have a funny story about any of the drivers you’ve worked with?
“I have a lot of funny Denny Hamlin stories, a few good Matt Kenseth stories, Erik Jones is getting a couple good ones. Since Denny just got injured, one from back in the day was when he sliced his hand open his rookie year at the Charlotte test he ended up getting 19 stitches and we were racing around the truck because Dale Jarrett ran a fast lap around Charlotte Motor Speedway and Denny bet I couldn’t run a seven second lap around the hauler. I took up that challenge and was able to do it. He won double or nothing on me doing it. He went around the truck and ended up grabbing the headlight cover on his way by and slicing his hand the Wednesday before Richmond. Needless to say, I thought he was a big scaredy-cat, but he was bent over bleeding out of his hand. We had to take him to the hospital, had to call his girlfriend, talk to J.D. Gibbs (JGR president) on the phone. I wouldn’t say embarrassed, but it was a minor injury compared to what he’s dealing with now.”
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