Wheeler pairs with Hamlin, leads driver to Daytona 500 win
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) For years, Mike Wheeler crunched numbers as Denny Hamlin's race engineer, the No. 2 atop the pit box each week. Wheeler wanted a crew chief job, and Hamlin developed a strong enough rapport with him that he knew he one day wanted Wheeler for the position.
So Joe Gibbs Racing sent Wheeler last year to the Xfinity Series to get experience as a crew chief. It was all the training he needed, as Hamlin summoned him back this season to run the No. 11 team.
The pairing paid off with a Daytona 500 win to open their tenure together.
''It's pretty crazy. You work your butt off all these years trying to get to this spot,'' Wheeler said. ''You put in the hours. You work your guts out trying to be the best, finally have the opportunity to be the crew chief, lead the team. It's really satisfying.''
This was a match Hamlin was certain would work, even though Wheeler becomes the fourth crew chief of his career and third in three seasons.
He wanted ''Wheels'' all along and said last month this pairing will last the rest of his career. That vote of confidence meant a lot to Wheeler, but like Hamlin, he was already certain the two would find success.
''We've grown up together. We've been through some battles together. We've had long talks and had a lot of good times together, and I think one thing we can say is you just keep working together,'' Wheeler said. ''It either happens or it doesn't happen, and I've known for years that we just clicked and we can talk and I can pass ideas by him, and whether it sticks or not, he'd always listen. ... I think in the long run, I know we can work together for the long haul and be successful.''
Hamlin believes he promised Wheeler the crew chief job in either 2009 or 2010, knowing that Wheeler would not be content not taking the next step in his own career. It took much longer to make it happen, but it was worth the wait.
''I knew he had aspirations to be a crew chief in the Cup Series. You can only be a great engineer for so long before other teams are going to come knocking,'' Hamlin said. ''Even though I probably premature promised him the job, a little soon, you know ... I'm glad he was only gone for a year.
''There's something about Wheels that I felt was right. Our communication is right. This is my guy.''
STEWART-REPLACEMENT: Ty Dillon will drive for Tony Stewart this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and Brian Vickers will get back in the car at Las Vegas.
Stewart is recovering from a fractured back suffered in an accident driving an all-terrain vehicle. He's expected to race again this season, his last in NASCAR, but no timetable has been given for his return.
Dillon has competed in eight career Sprint Cup races. He finished 25th in the Daytona 500 in a car fielded by Leavine Family Racing. His seven previous starts in 2014 and 2015 were with his grandfather, team owner Richard Childress.
Vickers ran all of Speedweeks in Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet and finished 26th in the Daytona 500. He's expected back in the car at Las Vegas in two weeks.
ANDRETTI-ROSSI: Alexander Rossi, who failed to land a seat in Formula One this season, will switch to IndyCar and drive for Andretti Autosport.
Rossi will drive the No. 98 Honda and get his first laps in an Indy car on March 1 at Sebring International Raceway.
''We're really excited to have Alexander join the team,'' said team owner Michael Andretti. ''His credentials speak for his ability and we're confident he'll transition seamlessly into IndyCar racing.''
The No. 98 became part of the Andretti fleet last week when the team merged with Bryan Herta Autosport. Herta will be Rossi's race strategist in 2016 while Tom German will serve as his lead engineer.
''I'm very much looking forward to making my IndyCar Series debut this season and am proud to be racing with a team of such high caliber and pedigree as that of Andretti Autosport,'' said Rossi. ''As a racer through and through, I cannot wait to get started. Our goal is to be competitive immediately at the first race in St. Petersburg.''
The IndyCar season begins next month on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.
INDYCAR-STEWARDS: IndyCar added former driver Max Papis and longtime motorsports executive Dan Davis to its three-person race steward team on Wednesday.
They join two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk as the stewards for the 2016 season. The stewards will report to Jay Frye, president of competition and operations.
Davis is the chief steward and will be the team leader. Davis has 40 years of experience in the auto industry with General Motors and Ford Motor Co. He spent 14 years at Ford as director of Ford Racing Technology, in charge of the global company's North American racing operations.
Luyendyk won seven IndyCar races, including the 1990 and 1997 Indianapolis 500s. Papis has raced in Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR. He won three races in CART and IndyCar.
''Our desire was to assemble a team with varied backgrounds that would work together to move IndyCar forward in the area of monitoring on-track competition,'' Frye said. ''Being a race steward requires thorough knowledge and consistent interpretation of the rules, as well as the ability to enact them with resolve. This is the right group to do that.''