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Riverhead Raceway alum to serve as Sprint Cup crew chief for Denny Hamlin

Mike Wheeler

Of the first 37 years of Mike Wheeler’s life, none come close to 2015.

It’s the year the Southold native received his first opportunity to serve a full season as a NASCAR crew chief, overseeing Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 car in the Xfinity Series.

In November, his wife Amy gave birth to the couple’s first child, a baby boy named James.

Now with just 10 days remaining in the year, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Monday that Mr. Wheeler has been promoted to the Sprint Cup, where he’ll serve as crew chief at the sport’s highest level for driver Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota.

“And I got married at the end of last year,” he said with a laugh. “Every year’s getting better.”

For Mr. Wheeler, the promotion is the realization of a grand goal he set as a young boy. He took his job in the Xfiniti Series when the opportunity arose this year so he could prove to sponsors and teams that he could be a successful crew chief. He had previously served as an engineer with the team at the Sprint Cup level.

The move paid off.

With Mr. Hamlin and others behind the wheel, the No. 20 car drove to four wins and 18 top five finishes in Mr. Wheeler’s first season as crew chief. The car finished fifth in the owner’s championship standings.

He found out he was receiving the promotion a few weeks earlier and a racing blog reported the news, causing an avalanche of congratulations on social media that he had to ignore until the announcement was made.

“Pretty exciting when management calls and tells you the news,” he said. “I’ve been working toward this goal the entire time.”

Related story: He went from the pits at Riverhead Raceway to NASCAR crew chief

The son of Dick and Laureen Wheeler of Southold, cars have been a part of Mike’s life for as long as he can remember. Since 1977, his father has owned Wheeler’s Garage on Route 48, a business Mike’s grandfather, Joseph, opened 24 years earlier. Dick Wheeler also drove race cars at Riverhead Raceway, where Mike could be seen tinkering in his formative years.

After graduating from Southold High School in 1997, where he played on the soccer and bowling teams, Mike studied at Kettering University in Michigan, earning a degree in mechanical engineering with a focus on automotive.

After completing his college internship at STIDD Systems in Greenport, a manufacturer of boat seats, Mr. Wheeler finished college and moved back home to take a job with the T.S. Haulers motorsports team in Calverton in 2002. Serving as crew chief for car owner Eddie Partridge and driver Bo Gunning, the team claimed the modified championship at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut in his only season with the company.

Soon after the season ended, he landed an interview with Joe Gibbs Racing. Within weeks he was headed to North Carolina to become race engineer for the company. He currently lives in Huntersville, N.C.

Three years later, Mr. Hamlin joined the team as a 24-year-old driver for the No. 11 FedEx NASCAR Sprint Cup car and the two young men, both new to the highest levels of the sport, formed a longtime partnership.

In his first full season of Sprint Cup racing in 2006, Mr. Hamlin finished fifth in the final championship points standings, with 11 top-10 finishes and earnings of more than $1 million. That February, the two men each earned their first Sprint Cup victory at the Daytona Budweiser Shootout. They’ve since claimed victory in more than two dozen races together.

So when the time came to make a change at the Sprint Cup level heading into the 2016 season it made sense to pair the two up again.

“We’re close in age and we’ve always had a good relationship both professionally and personally,” he said. “There’s definitely a mutual respect we have for each other.”

Mr. Hamlin’s former crew chief, Dave Rogers, will move to the No. 19 Toyota of Carl Edwards. Mr. Edwards finished fifth in points this year, while Mr. Hamlin was ninth.

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Photo: Mike and Amy Wheeler with driver Denny Hamlin in the winner’s circle at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on Sept. 5. (Credit: Mike Wheeler, courtesy)