Picture this: a victory in his first Daytona 500 as a crew chief. That image became a reality for Southold native Mike Wheeler when driver Denny Hamlin grabbed victory in a photo finish at Daytona International Speedway. Hamlin made his move on the race’s final lap and edged his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Martin Truex Jr., by a hundredth of a second.
It was the first Daytona 500 win for Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing and Wheeler, a 1997 graduate of Southold High School.
Hamlin was in fourth place in his No. 11 Toyota entering Lap 200, trailing three teammates before making his move to the closest win in Daytona 500 history.
In his post-race interview on Fox, Wheeler said Hamlin had wanted to make his move once he knew victory was assured for his JGR team. “He said two [laps] to go, gotta make sure we have a team win,” Wheeler said. “He made a run on the outside and he blocked. I just can’t believe it.”
A stunned Hamlin had no answer for how he pulled off the narrow win. “I can’t even figure out what I did,” he told Fox.
Hamlin was coming off a win in overtime at the Sprint Unlimited, also run on the 2.5-mile track at Daytona International Speedway. It was the first Sprint Cup race for Hamlin with Wheeler as his crew chief.
Wheeler was officially promoted to serve as a crew chief at NASCAR’s highest level last December. He had previously served as a crew chief in the Xfinity Series.
Photo caption: Mike Wheeler at Michigan International Speedway in 2014. (AP Photo/NKP, Jennifer Coleman)