By: Ashley McCubbin
When everybody heard Bubba Wallace would be driving for a team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan, the immediate expectation was winning and playoffs.
However, crew chief Mike Wheeler says those expectations need to be backed up a little bit.
“The reality is it’s a new team and a driver that has ran outside the top-20 in points – it’s not easy,” he told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Obviously he’s under the pressure to perform, but the reality is the expectations are not about winning five races this year, but getting better, and he’s been doing that. It’s not easy to go from running 25th in points and being off your game to trying to beat both Martin Truex and Christopher Bell, who have been in this game at the highest level for awhile with all the resources that we have.
“He’s getting better – I’d say he’s there; it’s just about putting the races together. But so far he’s been good to work with.”
Prior to the Daytona 500, Wheeler sat down with Hamlin to ensure they were both in the same mindset.
“Cup Racing is the highest level of racing that we have in North America, with respect to IndyCar,” Wheeler explained. “So to take something new and go out there and win a race, it doesn’t reach, but we’re both in the mindset of start off good, have good car speed, have good culture at the shop, and then perform better each week.”
Although they have yet to score a top-10, the No. 23 Toyota has been able to do so at several points across the schedule this season, including this past weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Wallace ironically led 23 laps, and was inside the top-five for the beginning of the third stage, before fading with a tire rub and pit strategy.
“I think the field has seen that to where we can go run up there in the top-five and have good lap times and put it together; we just haven’t had the finishes,” Wheeler commented. “I’ve been disappointed with the finishes – I don’t want to be where we are at in points. We’ve had some wrecks, had some flat tires, things not going our way – that’s part of racing, but it keeps you hungry.
“Hopefully we can keep progressing forward and can go run top-10, finish top-10. The moment you finish mid-pack or back, you’re stuck back there for the first stage, and you don’t get stage points – and you’re further back in points. It carries over so we’re hoping to get back top-10, top-15 so we can get more points and start better, so hopefully we can get more stage points.”
Keeping their own thoughts in-place, Wheeler has been happy with what he’s seen out of his counterpart thus far, saying it has been nice working with Wallace.
“I’ve heard about this before and I’m witnessing this now, but he’s a great guy to be around,” he commented. “We’ve never had an issue with personalities. He stays focused on the racing, but enjoys life, and when you can do that, you can enjoy racing the right away.”