A brand-new NASCAR season provides a blank slate for crew chief Mike Wheeler in more ways than one.
Now the leader of the No. 95 at Leavine Family Racing, ‘Wheels’, as he’s known, has been head down and digging since cleaning out his office at Joe Gibbs Racing on Thanksgiving Day. With a new team comes a new driver in Matt DiBenedetto. The rules package for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is also changing.
“For the first few months when I knew this was coming down, I had mixed emotions because I grew up wanting to race and compete for wins and championships, and I had that with Denny [Hamlin] and the 11 car,” Wheeler told RACER of this new opportunity.
“The mindset [was] we could win any weekend, battle for championships and playoffs and all that kind of stuff, and then it wasn’t happening. So, coming here and starting – I don’t want to say at the bottom – but rebuilding [is] mixed emotions.”
But having seen other crew chiefs go through the ‘wringer’, as Wheeler described such a career move, and enjoying the experience has him looking forward to doing the same. Yes, Wheeler wants to win the Daytona 500 and many other races this season, but realistically that’s quite a reach for his team.
“But at the same point, it’s not out of reach in my career here or in the near future,” he said. “That date is not set, but the more I do it… it is intriguing to be a part of the process of growing [a team], seeing all the people here working hard to battle toward the top, and I know the more successful you are at doing that, you will feel really good about it.”
Change is all around Wheeler. As an organization, LFR is amid a retooling after having gone from the Chevy to Toyota camp (with manufacturer support) and a JGR alliance. That was a big part of the reason Wheeler knew he had to quickly start working on 2019 after 2018 ended. The starting point was hiring folks for key positions such as car chief and lead engineer.
Most of what had been the No. 95 team before Wheeler arrived remains intact. The switch to Toyota enticed many on the team to stay put when they had opportunities elsewhere, and learning that Wheeler was going to be their guy added to the excitement and emphasis of being a part of the program. Wheeler said he was flattered to hear that.
“It’s everything,” said Wheeler of the focus within the shop. “For sure manufacturer changes, chassis change … essentially the entire fleet got cleared out and [we’re] starting from scratch. JGR is helping the process with that as far as getting chassis and bodies over here and having to order cars piece by piece, part by part; it’s quite a large undertaking. Rules change, yeah, it’s affecting us, but honestly we’re trying to just get cars built, set up, aligned and get the processes going before we worry about the at-the-racetrack stuff.”
Team owner Bob Leavine emphasized just a few months ago that his group is not Furniture Row. What had essentially been a fifth JGR car with Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 78 team is not a realistic expectation for the No. 95. Wheeler has heard similar comparisons, but was quick to set the record straight on how things are going to work between LFR and JGR.
First, there will not be an open notebook between the two organizations because “it’s not quite the level of a full alliance type deal.” Gibbs will give Leavine a certain amount of information, parts and pieces, but there will not be full sharing. Team meetings featuring all five teams are not going to happen. Basically, with LFR’s funding they’re building their program to one day, hopefully, reach the Gibbs level.
Wheeler knows all about that level, as he’s won big races like the Daytona 500 and Southern 500. He plans to be there again one day, but knows his new group is going to have to work a whole lot harder, and longer, to make it happen.
“Right away I realized how much my expectations of finishing position would be changed, and that was where the mixed emotions came,” said Wheeler. “If you could go someplace else, you’re pretty confident in yourself – ‘Oh, I could get these guys to wins.’ But knowing the undertaking here, it’s more than that. It’s about making it to the racetrack, being fully prepared and then performing well.
“Honestly … if we can get them running more so in the top 10 and to be finishing and racing well into the top 10, that’s our first goal. But in December and January, we’ve been working on organization and building a structure to put cars together, because it is all different. A lot of the parts and pieces and suspension don’t fit, so everything kind of got wiped out and [we’re] started from scratch. … You’re really working hard to manage expectations, but you think you can get there at some point and hopefully, it’s sooner than later.”