Andrea Mueller takes the lead as engineer for NASCAR Cup team
Andrea Mueller will have a much different job for this year's Daytona 500 than the last one she worked.
As an engineer at Team Penske in 2009, Mueller's race-day job did not rank among the most thrilling. She spent race days as the team scorer, where she would sit in a NASCAR-provided booth and push a button every time the car crossed the start/finish line as a way for NASCAR to have a backup scoring system. With the advancement in electronic scoring, that job no longer exists.
Her job Feb. 26 at Daytona International Speedway will feel significantly more important as well as provide an incredible thrill -- and likely way more stress -- as a culmination of her path over the past 10 years. She will work in her first NASCAR Cup race as the lead engineer for Wood Brothers Racing driver Ryan Blaney.
"Ultimately my goal all along has been to be a race engineer on a Cup team, and to get that shot ... your college, beating down the door to try to get in and getting in, it's like, 'Whoa, I finally made it,'" Mueller said. "It is a very good feeling."
The Cal Poly graduate worked for Boeing and Pratt & Whitney, doing projects for the space shuttle program at NASA before joining Team Penske in 2007. She steadily worked her way up, having served as the lead engineer for Penske's Xfinity Series No. 22 team, which won 25 races and three owners titles in her five seasons in the NASCAR equivalent to Triple-A baseball.
About a month ago, Mueller was offered the job as lead engineer for Blaney, who drives for Penske affiliate Wood Brothers Racing. Her role will give her the highest profile of any female in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage.
"She's definitely more than ready to do it," said Blaney, who has worked with Mueller on the Xfinity side. "She's done a great job. Honestly, I can't believe she hasn't been moved up sooner to a Cup car with the great job she's done. I'm really excited to have her."
Blaney, who finished 20th in the 2016 standings as a Cup rookie, said Mueller works well with his crew chief Jeremy Bullins, who used to run the Xfinity team. Mueller, team vehicle dynamicist Grant Hutchens and Bullins determine car set-ups, adjustments and race strategy.
"Knowing race cars, knowing what parts and pieces do and coming up with ideas to improve everything -- that is what she does so well," Blaney said. "All three, the crew chief and both engineers, have to bounce off each other really well.
"I thought we had that fairly decent last year, but I feel like we made a step up with them communicating and sharing ideas. ... The communication between those three will be good; I feel really comfortable with her and Grant and Jeremy to do that."
Mueller said she's ready for the step. The biggest difference between working on a Cup car and an Xfinity car is there is no minimum height in Cup, so teams can engineer the body of the car to have as little clearance to the ground as possible.
"Like everyone else, you're usually harder on yourself than you need to be," she said. "So you start to second guess yourself ... a little bit of, 'Am I really ready to do this?' When you sit down and look at what the job involves, it's not that much different than the day-to-day routines that I've been doing on the Xfinity team."
The next natural step on her career path would be crew chief, but Mueller has said for several years she has no desire to work as a crew chief, whose responsibilities include a heavy dose of management and media chores.
"One thing time has definitely not changed is I'm still good stopping at the engineer level," Mueller said. "What I like about my role is your focus is the car and doing the race strategy. There is a lot of other stuff that crew chiefs have to do that most people don't see that I'm really not interested in.
"I'd like to stay focusing on the technical side."
Working a test Jan. 31 to Feb. 1 at Phoenix Raceway, Mueller wasn't the only woman in the Cup garage. Several teams have female engineers and mechanics on staff. Alba Colon, an engineer who oversees Chevrolet's Cup program, is the most visible woman on the technical side. As far as team crew members, Liz Prestella has worked in a variety of roles at Tommy Baldwin Racing and will work as a tire specialist at JTG Daugherty Racing this season.
"I don't really notice [as I work], but I feel like, in general, there's becoming more women in the garage, which is awesome," Mueller said.
Others will notice Mueller, who as a lead engineer will be visible atop the pit box during the race. During the Daytona 500, she probably won't have time to think about the days in 2009 when she had a minimal race-day role. But those days working her way to her career goal likely will make the Daytona 500 and her first season as a leading Cup engineer even more special.
"It's definitely more feeling of I've got an impact on the outcome of how we do," Mueller said. "On the scoring deal, whether or not you really pushed the button every time the car crossed the line did not matter.
"So it's a lot more responsibility and actually feeling I have a part in how we do."