The No. 11 team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, driven by Denny Hamlin, has not been able to seal the deal to get into Victory Lane yet in 2018. It is all but assured of making the playoffs, but the momentum of a win would go a long way to giving Hamlin a shot at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and an opportunity to win the title.
Last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway was almost a microcosm of the year so far for the No. 11, with Hamlin sustaining damage early, battling back and then taking a bit more damage to ruin what could have been a podium finish.
Crew chief Mike Wheeler and his team are focused on the next two weeks and the playoffs as the series enjoys its final off-week of the year. Looking at the season and the playoffs ahead, Wheeler breaks down a bunch of it, including the Richmond Raceway test, the Southern 500 and more this week in Tech Talk.
Mike Neff – At Bristol, we saw a lot of drivers getting shuffled due to restarting on the bottom lane. Would you like to see NASCAR implement a choose cone to give teams an option on where they restart?
Mike Wheeler – I’m not against the idea of a choose cone. I never grew up racing with that kind of rule. They didn’t have it at the local level where I raced. I understand the concept behind it, and it isn’t a bad idea. At the same point, it goes back and forth where sometimes you get the preferred lane based on being even or odd, while sometimes you don’t. It is part of racing. You wish everything was in your control when it comes to the sport, but then again, it is part of the variability of racing at this level of the sport.
Neff – Teams used to utilize a baseball bat to clear the wheel wells after a car was in an incident. Simply putting the bat against the wheel and rolling the car forward and back would roll the bar around the opening and clear the wheel. Did NASCAR send out a bulletin to tell people baseball bats are not allowed on pit road anymore?
Wheeler – I think we’ve just gotten away from it. The biggest thing is that we really need to cut away the sheet metal around the wheels when they are rubbing. We’re not allowed to add panels anymore as part of the damage vehicle policy rule change over the last couple of years. A lot of times, we try and just pull away the fender clearances to avoid tire rubs, cutting away anything that is really harsh. The baseball bat was a good way of doing it on speedways when fender clearances are naturally really tight. With new bodies and everything that is going on, it is a little bit easier and better to just be able to pull on them and clearance them that way.
Neff – With a week off this week, are you and the team spending a whole week in the shop working, or are you taking a little time away to decompress?
Wheeler – Most of my team is working half of a week this week. All four of our [Joe Gibbs Racing] cars are in the shop for a bit. The No. 11 car has a test Monday and Tuesday in Richmond, so we’re half preparing for that and getting ahead for Darlington [Raceway], because we’re going to have a short turnaround after the Richmond test. In our series, life never ends as far as the competition world. You’re always trying to get ahead and be a little bit better than you were the week before. Even though we have off-weeks, we’re still trying to work hard to perform better, and this week is no different.
Neff – You’re technically not locked into the playoffs yet, though that could happen after the first stage in Darlington. With a stretch of 12 straight races on the horizon, how far ahead are you on the preparation for cars for the 10 playoff races?
Wheeler – We have our allotment set up for four to six weeks out, depending on where we are in the sequence of events. We have it on paper, and some of those cars are actually being built, but obviously we have something like where our Darlington car might be turned around for something six weeks out. Obviously, our next three or four racecars are built in various stages. Ultimately, we have plans in place to schedule the shop workflow through October.
Neff – With as fluent as our sport is and with the amount of things that you learn on a week-to-week basis, do you not want to get too far ahead of yourself in car prep due to the fact that something might change and you’d have to make alterations to several racecars?
Wheeler – Yeah, no doubt. For sure, a lot of the basic builds are done. Body builds, crush panels, the mainstays are done. As far as setup sheets and all of that kind of stuff, we can work three weeks out, maybe four weeks out, depending on the event. A lot of times you don’t change your braking system or your steering box the week of. There is no doubt the No. 11 car doesn’t get too involved with final setups a month out, because you get little updates or rules changes between now and that event. If you get too detailed a month ahead of time, you have to do the work twice, and that is something you really want to avoid.
Neff – How different are your cars that you’ll use for the last 12 races from they were at the beginning of the year?
Wheeler – Honestly, I don’t think they are that different. With the OSS [Optical Scanning System] and some of the rules changes we’ve had, they’ve definitely clamped down on how big of a box we have to work on. There have been some things that happened to us this year. The style of car that we had at [ISM Raceway], or the style of car we had at Phoenix is not going to be the same as what we’ll have at the next Phoenix. That is true for several of these tracks, like Dover [International Speedway], with the flat splitter enforcement and all of that kind of stuff.
Ultimately, you’re constantly evolving your fleet with what you’ve learned. What you think you know you’re doing right now, a year from now you’ll look back and go, ‘man, we learned so much in the last year.’ You have to apply all of that stuff. You’re constantly evolving things.
Neff – We’ve seen some technical bulletins come down after some teams were playing with paint and shading trying to confuse the OSS. Does NASCAR have a tight grasp on the system now and the overall consistency of it?
Wheeler – Yeah, I think it has always been pretty consistent with the way it has been working. At the end of the day it is still a computer-driven system, so you have hiccups at certain times where you lose power or have a computer failure, along with anything else. The whole black paint thing, we knew that was in play at the beginning of the year. NASCAR, on the record, warned us not to go down that direction. We knew we could change some shading of colors in certain areas and make the OSS not pick up certain things or hide certain definitions. It is something that we, JGR, was aware of, and we did not play that game. It definitely began to get a little bit more widespread, and I think that is when you saw NASCAR come out and say that they were going to stop it right there. It got a little more publicized, although I don’t think it was a big staple as far as changing what was going on with the OSS.
Neff – How finalized are you with what you’re going to do with your Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL car since you’ve got the two tests out of the way?
Wheeler – I wouldn’t say we are quite finalized on that. We learned a lot about that track. As much as there is to gain in the oval portion of the course, you have to make sure your car handles in the road course part of it. The bumps are pretty fierce. You end up going over all of those man-made bumps that end up tearing a car up pretty good, both body and suspension. We’re going to do a little extra homework on making sure our cars are durable enough and don’t have any kind of mechanical issues, especially when the drivers don’t stay on course. We need to make sure that our cars hold up to the abuse that track is definitely giving. It’s some of the highest impulse loads that we’ve seen anywhere over the course of testing. Definitely a little different animal is being created with that track.
Neff – When the ride height rule came in, the thought was that it would cut down on the exotic nature of shocks and springs. Are those suspension components as sophisticated and expensive as they were before the no ride-height rule came into play?
Wheeler – I would say our shocks are pretty much on the same level as they were five years ago with the ride height rule. We definitely use our shocks more for dampening control instead of ride height control like we used to. With ride height, we used to try and pull the nose down with tight bleeds and a lot of rebound. These days, you are controlling the tire better and the suspension better with the dampening ratios to make sure the car isn’t bouncing too stiffly or oscillating too much. Ultimately, at a place like the ROVAL, you are going over the curbs so fast and so hard that not only are you worrying about damaging suspension components, you’re actually overloading part of the system too, which is something we’re looking at to make sure that we don’t have any kind of issues.
Neff – What plans do you have for your last off-weekend of the season?
Wheeler – I am going to try and do everything I can to catch up on some sleep and get a little bit of exercise in. My two kids are missing their dad every weekend, so I’ll definitely spend some time with them. Possibly do some swimming and maybe hit a local zoo or something like that. Make sure to keep the family in check, because the next 12 weeks will go really quick. It is three months of straight hard work with full-on stress making sure you can perform the best you can. Take some time off this weekend to enjoy the family, see as many friends as we can, catch up on sleep and get back at it next week.