Mike Wheeler was a “little embarrassed.”
Denny Hamlin had won the Daytona 500, giving the No. 11 team the points lead and all but insured a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Ten races later, Hamlin was outside the top 10 in the standings.
Wheeler, a rookie Sprint Cup crew chief, had put the No. 11 team in “R&D mode for a bit.”
“Like (if) I got this crazy idea, let’s try it,” Wheeler said Saturday after Hamlin won the Sprint Cup race at Richmond. “A couple of them worked, three or four of them were failures.”
The hits and misses had Hamlin 13th in the standings by the May 7 race at Kansas. Leaving Kansas, Hamlin had six finishes of 15th or worst.
The No. 11 team would be outside the top 10 in points for eight of the next 11 races, not rising above 10th until after the Aug. 1 Pocono race.
“Honestly, once we got down in points, I was a little embarrassed,” Wheeler said. “Really made sure to get everybody together and run into the Chase strong.”
The righting of Hamlin’s season begun two weeks earlier at New Hampshire Motor Speedway when the No. 11 finished 10th. It was Hamlin’s second top 10-finish in six races (including a runner-up finish Sonoma).
His win Saturday in the Federated Auto Parts 400 gives Hamlin eight straight top 10s, the best stretch of Hamlin’s 12-year career. That includes his first road course win at Watkins Glen International.
“With that, our pit crew is knocking it out of the park right now,” Wheeler said. “We’re doing good on Fridays and Saturdays. I think our qualifying average is about as good as anybody. Finally got a pole.”
Entering the weekend, Hamlin was one of two Joe Gibbs Racing-related drivers to not have a pole. Carl Edwards has a series leading five, Kyle Busch has two and Martin Truex Jr. at Furniture Row Racing has three, which ties his career best.
Leaving Richmond and heading into his 10th Chase for the Sprint Cup, Hamlin has an average start of 5.9 and and average finish of 12.2.
After going into R&D mode early in the season, Wheeler “can’t say I’m holding back. I’m making sure that we get into the first round by running good, making sure we maximize what we can, and obviously try to perform at the highest level and win some races.”
And with Hamlin having earned three wins in 26 races, his most since winning five in 2012, Wheeler has nothing to be embarrassed about.
“We’ve been in the past in the Chase going, you know, we can win some races and we can be good, but you always had this feeling of you can get beat,” Wheeler said. “If you’re not at 100 percent, you can get beat. I feel good now that if we hit 100 percent, we will win. That’s something you strive for.”