Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday July 21, 2011
Being a Sprint Cup crew chief in the 21st century takes not only technical knowledge, but the ability to keep up with a changing racetrack, coach a driver, and address the media all while at the center of a whirlwind weekend. Grace under pressure takes on a whole new meaning when things are happening around you at nearly 200 miles an hour. Racetracks change over the course of an afternoon, an hour, a few laps. Drivers get frustrated, uncomfortable, sometimes irascible. Racecars react to track conditions, new tires, mechanical issues, wrecks. And there’s just one man who has to wade through that and more, keeping up with the track, keeping the driver focused, keeping the car ahead of the curve and out of harm’s way.
On the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, that man is Paul Wolfe. A former driver, Wolfe took over the crew chief position for driver Brad Keselowski and team in 2011 after leading Keselowski to a Nationwide Series title in 2010. That championship was Wolfe’s first as a crew chief, and after decades of trying, the first NASCAR championship at any level for team owner Roger Penske. When Keseloswki moved into the No. 2 this year, it was the perfect opportunity to keep a winning combination together. As of New Hampshire, the combination of Wolfe, Keselowski, and the No. 2 team has produced a win (Kansas) and four top 10s. Currently 23rd in points, they have a shot at cashing in on a Chase berth as well via the new wild card rules this year, and as the summer has heated up, the team has responded in kind, finding speed and, perhaps more importantly, consistency in their racecars. I had the chance to talk with Wolfe in New Hampshire at the track he calls home about his team, his driver, and what it takes to be in the position to win.
For Wolfe, the transition to crew chief started behind the wheel. A regular on what is now the K&N Pro Series East, Wolfe had some success as a driver in that series (19 top 10 finishes in 40 starts) as well as the Nationwide Series. But opportunity has a funny way of opening doors we don’t expect, and Wolfe found himself on top of the pit box instead of in the driver’s seat.
It was there that his career really blossomed. Wolfe says that his experience as a driver has helped him to communicate better with the drivers he’s worked with, and he brings a knowledge of racetracks beyond that which is seen only from pit road.
“Obviously I miss driving,” Wolfe said last week at New Hampshire. “I didn’t really want to quit driving, but that’s the way it worked out. I got offered the job as a crew chief. I feel like my prior experience building racecars and then the short bit I drove made the transition back to crew chief pretty easy. I think the communication with the drivers-I’ve worked with a lot of different drivers-the communication was easier just from the standpoint of especially the tracks I drove at and had a good understanding of, it helped a good bit there. So it was slowly just working up, working with a lot of different teams and slowly felt like I’ve progressed a lot as a crew chief and that opened up some opportunities with some different teams, and then getting the opportunity last year to go to work with Brad and the [No.] 22 car in the NNS that was something I looked forward to.”
Wolfe said that even before he had the opportunity to work with Keselowski, he knew the driver was one who could make a race team better. Keselowski’s aggressive style often leads to clashes on the racetrack, but Wolfe says that he saw the ability that separates a great driver from a good one in Keselowski-the ability to make a racecar better, and the two have found a strong relationship amid their rapid success together.
“I had watched Brad for a couple of years prior to that and obviously racing against him, I felt like he was the kind of guy that you wanted to team up with,” says Wolfe. “I saw Brad win races in cars that weren’t maybe as good as cars that I felt like I could give him. There’s days when you don’t have the best car, but the driver needs to make up for that, and I felt like Brad was that kind of driver. I saw how hard he had to work to get where he was at. We were very similar in the way we were brought up and what we believed in.”
“We started off the year really strong and just built from there. Our relationship got very strong with the success that we’ve had right off the bat that I think made it stronger with having the confidence in each other and what we were doing and it led us to Roger’s first NASCAR championship. That was pretty special for everybody. There was some talk before the season was over if I was interested in the opportunity to work on the Cup side with Brad. We were really focused on just trying to finish out the season on the NNS side and try to bring home the championship and once we were able to accomplish that and did our deal at Homestead, I felt like it was a good opportunity for me, especially with the success we’ve had at Penske.”
From there, the pair has worked to build trust in each other and to improve each week as each gains experience. The team has shown marked improvement since late May, starting with a pole at Charlotte. Their breakthrough win came at Kansas in June.
Wolfe says, “Building a lot of trust with the people and the company knowing I could get the job done was worth a lot. It’s been a pretty tough start to the year for us. It was a little rocky at the beginning. Some of it was we just didn’t have the cars where they needed to be and the transition for me and understanding what it took to race at this level. It’s quite a bit different. As time has gone on, we’ve been able to give Brad cars that he’s been able to run up front, and we got our first win and the momentum and we continue to build on that. I feel like I still have a long way to go as far as growing as a Cup crew chief, and obviously Brad does as a driver, so I feel like if everybody just keeps working hard on this team we can continue to make progress.”
One key to the team’s success lately is shared with Keselowski’s teammate, Kurt Busch, and the No. 22 team. As the two teams have worked to share information and become a stronger team, the results have been apparent for both the No. 2 and the No. 22. Busch has one win this year, at Sonoma, three poles, and 11 top 10s. The teams hadn’t been sharing as much earlier on, and Wolfe says that the benefits have been apparent as both teams are performing better. “At the beginning of the year we were trying different things and running some different setups,” remembers Wolfe. “We hit on something around Charlotte week and from there the two cars really got on the same basic setups and now it’s just made both of us stronger each week. As you can see the cars are usually pretty close to each other on the track. Especially only having two cars, it’s important to be as strong as we can as far as sharing information.”
That goes double for the Penske bunch because there is nowhere else to turn for information. They’re the flagship team for Dodge-and the only team for Dodge other than struggling Robby Gordon Motorsports. That means they have all the manufacturer has to offer, but if they do fall behind, there is no help from around them. Wolfe says that being on a virtual island is both bane and blessing as Penske tries to bring the manufacturer a coveted Cup championship.
“I guess there are pros and cons to every situation. It’s exciting to know that Dodge believes in what we’re doing. They give us all the support they can. They’re there to help us. Sometimes it makes it tough just being two teams, but I think at the end of the day it all works out from one weekend to the next. As long as we do our job as teams and being able to work well with the [No.] 22 guys, I think we can make it happen,” says Wolfe of that elusive title.
In order to win championships, a team must find certain things in combination: speed, then wins, then consistency at the top of a very competitive game. That consistency can be the most elusive of the three, because it means you have the speed, the talent, and the equipment, but sometimes they’re for naught without a healthy dose of luck. Still, Wolfe says, his team is working to make their own luck, preparing cars that need small adjustments, not all-out changes, so that Keselowski can pass cars and stay out of trouble on the track. That hasn’t been easy, but it’s getting more apparent each week.
“I think the consistency was where we were off a little bit at the start of the season. We kept working at it, keeping pace,” says Wolfe. “Even the days we struggled, we didn’t just throw a whole new setup at it. We kept working trying to fine tune what we were doing until we hit it. I think once you find it, it makes it a lot easier to be consistent. You can unload each week and just try little things to gain speed. Just finding that baseline has allowed us to be consistent week in and week out.”
Consistency is perhaps the last, and the biggest, hurdle that the No. 2 team must overcome in the next seven weeks in order to take a crack at NASCAR’s biggest prize, the Sprint Cup championship. New rules this year offer a Chase berth to two teams between tenth and 20th in points with the most wins. Keselowski is currently 23rd in points, 31behind 20th, but he does have one win, which could be enough if he can gain the points to make the top 20. Wolfe says the points should be the easy part, but the team cannot count on a single win to secure a spot. That’s going to involve some risk on the team’s part.
“As far as the wild card deal, obviously we’re sitting okay with one win already. That’s great, but we feel like we’re going to have to get another win to be able to make it into the Chase,” Wolfe says. “With the way we’re running we feel like getting into the top 20 really shouldn’t be an issue. The goal is to keep building points and get a little closer with a few weeks to go and if we haven’t gotten a win yet, we’ll roll the dice a little more and then just try maybe some riskier calls.”
For a second-year driver and a first-year crew chief operating for a two-car organization, that seems like a tall order. But Wolfe says that much of it is up to the driver, and he has the utmost confidence in Keselowski’s talent and aggressive style. The cars are so close with the current package, Wolfe explains, that the driver can take advantage of a setup he likes and make it better. “Everybody’s in the same box. It makes the field so close. Everybody just has to pay attention to detail and get every last little bit out of them we can. There are still areas to work. It puts a lot of it in the driver’s hands. When the cars are that close, you can see the drivers definitely have to step up on their game too.”
Whether Wolfe and Keselowski can defy the odds and make the Chase and then a title run in 2011 will be decided in the next few weeks. They do have a shot; the points are close and they are finding that elusive consistency everywhere they can. Lady Luck will play a role as well, as any racer will surely tell you. If they don’t make it, it will be that much more motivation for a hungry crew chief, his driver, and a team that’s on the rise. A great driver-crew chief combination is rare, but Wolfe and Keselowski are building their case for being among the most successful pairings in the Cup garage. Both know how to use their hunger for more to their advantage, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. For the No. 2, the future is looking bright.
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