NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Russell LaBounty / NKP)

Tech Talk: Mike Wheeler On Cross Country Car Swaps, Aerodynamics and Pit Guns

A new addition to the Tech Talk lineup for 2018 is Mike Wheeler, the crew chief for Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team. This week, he looks back at his team’s weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, before talking about his preparations for Phoenix (ISM Speedway).

The race in Vegas was shaping up to be a strong finish for Wheeler’s team until a pit road speeding penalty relegated them to a lap down that they were never able to overcome. Tires were an issue last weekend but shouldn’t have much of an impact in Phoenix. What will be a factor is brake cooling and aerodynamics. It is hard to imagine that aero comes into play on a one-mile track, but the speeds that these cars are hitting it most definitely has an impact. Wheeler also talks about the swap out of cars from the Joe Gibbs Racing shop in North Carolina, and the new standardized pit gun process that has had a few hiccups over the first three races.

Mike Neff – Looking back at Las Vegas, it was certainly an up and down day for you. It seemed to be going well until the speeding penalty. Without that how do you feel like your day went at last weekend?

Mike Wheeler – Honestly, I think we had a pretty good car. The best the car was all weekend was Sunday, so that was a nice gain. Ultimately we were probably going to run somewhere between third and sixth if I had to guess based on the guys we were battling and catching throughout the day. Speeding penalty put us behind no doubt. We had a chance for a lucky dog a couple of times. Couple of those we lost on pit road and one time the No. 78 stayed out on old tires and we couldn’t take the wave around. By the end of the race we were in position for the lucky dog or getting back on the lead lap, stayed out as long as we could, but actually ended up breaking a valve spring right at the end of the race. Saying that, I don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t speed. With all of those things together, I don’t want to say we were destined for a 17th-place finish but that is what happened.

Neff – It seemed like no one was talking about tire wear coming into the race. However, on race day it did seem to matter. It appeared that Kyle Busch‘s strategy was going to pay off when he waited to pit until later than everyone else in the final stage. Did you feel like tires were significantly different enough, after 20-30 laps, to have an impact on the performance of the cars?

Wheeler – Tires definitely made a difference to make sure you were on the sequence you wanted to be on. Obviously the No. 78 stayed out there with about 10 lap old tires on, and lost a lot of positions because of that. Equally, whether Kyle was faster because of the new tires or just because he was fast, that is a whole different deal. Ultimately, if you have a good long run car, you can do those kind of strategies and make it work for you. Obviously if he lost a couple seconds early by pitting late, and didn’t have a good car it would be hard to make that up. Vegas is one of those tracks that has multiple lanes to pass people, where some tracks like Michigan [International Speedway] that have a single lane, it is a little harder to do that kind of thing. Vegas certainly worked out well for that.

Neff – We are now heading to Phoenix. Did you do the trailer swap in Vegas on Monday morning, moving your Phoenix cars into your hauler and putting the Vegas cars in haulers to take back to Mooresville?

Wheeler – No, we actually ended up swapping cars out Sunday night, after the race moving some of the equipment quickly. Our A and B team flew home this week, and will next week too. Our truck drivers did a little bit of a truck swap with parts and pieces. They’ll be staying out west for the two weeks. We have one group of them that are driving the Vegas cars back this week and will take the California cars to Phoenix this week. We’re flying out Wednesday night to Phoenix so we can work on the cars Thursday and get them all set up exactly how we want them with all of the final details in preparation for this weekend.

Neff – When you’re dealing with a multi-car organization like you are, do you have differently configured haulers that can handle four or six cars, for when you’re doing this back and forth shuffle, or do you use normal, stacker haulers like you employ every weekend?

Wheeler – Oh no, we actually have two, four-car haulers. They are basically what you see every weekend in the garage except the bottom is opened up so that you can fit four cars in it overall, along with some equipment. Not a lot of equipment but you can fit some in them. That is how we end up doing it. We take two of these four-car haulers and load up the primary and backup cars for each of our four teams and shuttle them out west.

Neff – Phoenix is definitely a different animal than the last two weeks where we were on mile-and-a-half tracks with banking. With the configuration changes to the track, with more room in the dogleg, does it allow you to incorporate any elements from your Intermediate track configurations into your Phoenix setup?

Wheeler – Yeah, Phoenix is pretty fast and pretty smooth, along with pretty flat. That combination of everything makes your aero contribution pretty high, almost like a pretty fast, banked track. Saying that, you’re always working on aero to a certain amount. Whether it is total downforce or aero balance or whatever else. It is still a short track so you have to worry about cooling your brakes and taking care of your car. It always matters and Phoenix is no different.

Neff – Do you feel like you use as much brake as you do at, obviously not Martinsville, but at a track like Bristol?

Wheeler – I would say you use as much brake at Phoenix as you do at Loudon — they are very similar. Phoenix has longer straightaways, so you get some cooling time where Bristol has a lot of cornering, not much straightaway and not much on-throttle time. [At] Phoenix you use the brakes pretty hard in Turn 1 and you trail them pretty good getting into Turn 3, so you end up having to use a lot of cooling there compared to most of the Intermediates we go to. Definitely, between Loudon, Phoenix and Richmond, they are all pretty close. Martinsville is the worst and the road courses are a different animal altogether.

Neff – You brought up aero balance. The Fords have come out of the box swinging pretty strong. A few people have mentioned that they feel the change to a common splitter has been a significant factor in that. Is that what you are feeling in the Toyotas this year, that the splitter has thrown you a little bit of a curveball for your aero balance?

Wheeler – Yeah, I’d say that is partially true. Obviously the splitter rule change was one of the things that made us go to work during the off-season. The OSS (Optical Scanning System) was another thing. All of the rule changes, updates and ways that they are enforcing the policies simply changes the cars up. As much as we know, mathematically they we can see what we have. We don’t really get the actual response until you get to the racetrack and see what you’re fighting. They have a head start and they are getting the most out of their cars. We are doing ok. I won’t say that we’re really fighting it too much but we definitely have some work to do.

Neff – The discussion topic of the week or two has been pit guns. From the Joe Gibbs Racing side of things, has it been disappointing for you that you’d have to take a step back to the field from the advantage that you obviously had with your team built guns?

Wheeler – Yeah, I’m not sure how much of an advantage we had. We were very confident in our equipment, which was good. We worked on our own equipment, whether it was cars or tools, for years. One of the things that always allowed us to do was to be in constant control of our own stuff. I don’t think we were getting beaten with our own guns, but I also don’t think we were beating people with our own guns and we were confident with what we had. Losing that was not something we wanted to do, but we understand the concept behind it in trying to level the playing field and make everyone happy. It is what is good for the sport which is totally fine. It is definitely different now for sure. Knock on wood, I have not had — with the No. 11 car — any issues to speak of. We have been playing the lottery right I guess you could say. I’m hoping they can learn from the issues they’re having right now and get them all fixed as soon as possible.

Neff – There were pictures online this week of the pit gun selection process. It looks very similar to the restrictor plate process where the team gets a random numbered pill and they are handed the gun box based on that number. Is that how this process is working for the gun assignment?

Wheeler – Yeah, from what I gather, it is very similar. They are definitely not assigned to a team beforehand where you might get concerned about something happening or a team getting something they aren’t supposed to. It is a very random and live process. It’s good to see. There is no confusion and there is nothing worrisome about the process. It is what it is and I don’t think there is any kind of gamesmanship going on there at all.

Neff – We know that tire changers are a quirky bunch to say the least. They used to customize their guns extensively and now they can’t do that. There was discussion on the race broadcast last week that they may allow the changers to use their own sockets on the issued guns. Have you heard if that is in process or not?

Wheeler – No, that is news to me. That is good to hear. I usually hear all of the good rumors, but I had not heard that one yet. It wouldn’t surprise me that people might have started some rumors to get some changes to happen. Whether it is their own sockets or their own guns or updating whatever they can it would not surprise me. People don’t want to have any kind of issues.

Neff – Phoenix is in the desert which means a lot of sand flying around. It usually happens that the first few laps on the track after a break, either between practice sessions or qualifying sessions, can see the cars pick up a lot of grains of sand in many of the nooks and crannies all over the cars. Do you have to pay extra attention to filters and screens to take into account how much additional sand and grit there is on the race track?

Wheeler – Not really. There are a lot of tracks that have different types of aggregate and they end up getting into the different joints in the car. The air filters we keep very clean and make sure they are performing correctly. There is some concern of getting grit into things like throttle cable joints and places like that, which would result in it acting up and causing the driver to give you negative feedback and need to work in that area. NASCAR and the tracks do a good job of trying to keep the tracks blown off and as clean as possible. There may be occasional things that get up into the car, but for the most part, it is more of a visual for the fans than something we have to worry about.

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About Mike Neff

Mike Neff
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.