Mike Neff · Thursday June 20, 2013
Paul Wolfe has been on top of pit boxes in NASCAR national touring series since 2006. However, he was a Penske Cup crew chief for just two years before hoisting the biggest trophy of all, the Sprint Cup over his head at Homestead. The young crew chief is a perfect partner for his driver, Brad Keselowski. While Keselowski is known for making some brash statements and not having a filter, Wolfe is very measured in his comments and doesn’t seem to say anything without knowing exactly how it will be interpreted.
Wolfe has 14 victories in NASCAR national touring series races, and Keselowski has been behind the wheel for every one of them. With the season approaching its midway point, Wolfe and Keselowski are still looking for their first win of the season, but they are ninth in the point standings and are right on pace with the results of their previous two Cup seasons through 15 races. Will this weekend be the one where they remind the world they’re still title contenders? Wolfe talked to Frontstretch this week during a break in his busy schedule as he prepared to head to Sonoma before testing at Loudon and then racing at Kentucky.
Mike Neff: Before we get into Sonoma, let’s talk a little bit about Michigan. How did you feel about your day on the two-mile oval in the Irish Hills?
Paul Wolfe: Well, obviously we didn’t get the finish we were hoping for out of it. We had a decent day leading up to the last two laps. We felt like we had an OK qualifying effort and all day, we slowly picked our way to the front. By the last run of the race, we found ourselves in the top 5. There was a little miscue between Brad and I on the last stop and we didn’t quite get the fuel we needed. We tried to save a little bit on that last run or catch that one caution, which was all we needed. However, we didn’t get it and we came up a little short on fuel. We were able to nurse it around and get an OK finish out of it (12th). It wasn’t a disaster by any means, although a top-5 finish would have been really nice. Overall, it was a tough race. Track position was so big because the tire is so hard and has so little grip that when you get into dirty air, it is like you have no air and no mechanical grip which makes it a handful to drive and hard to pass. That is just part of dealing with repaves. It will get better with time but that is calling it what it is — that is a day at Michigan.
Neff: The groove did seem to get at least a little closer to the outside wall compared to last year. Was one year of weather on that track able to give it that much more room?
Wolfe: There was room groove-wise, but it still doesn’t make it a whole lot easier to pass. The dirty air is so bad, but it will get better. As these tracks start to wear a little bit, we’ll hope that Goodyear will go back and reevaluate the tires and will try and give us some more grip. It is obviously a tough balance trying to give us grip and give us durability — I know it is a fine line there. However, at the end of the day, the more grip we can get in the tires, the better racing we’re going to have.
Neff: Comparing this year to your last couple of years, I know some people are feeling like you aren’t off to a great start. But looking at the statistics, you’re right about where you were the last two years. Do you guys feel like you’re in about the same ballpark as you’ve been?
Wolfe: Yeah, that is fair to say that we are, but on the same token, we’re two years smarter if you will and obviously we’ve had a lot of success, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t be better than what we’ve been the last couple of years, and that is what we’re striving to do. We feel like we came out of the gates really strong this year, had a lot of top 5s getting going and had a good handle on the Gen-6 car. Then, we had a couple of bad races there and the penalties and what-not that came down on us at Texas kind of disrupted our flow a little bit. Right now, we’re trying to get things going back in the right direction, get some momentum and start knocking out the top 5s and contending a little bit more for the wins like we are accustomed to doing at the end of last year. I don’t think anyone is in panic mode, but we have to continue to work hard because it seems like the Hendrick cars have found something right now and are pretty dominant everywhere we go — especially looking at Pocono and Michigan, the repaves that they obviously have something for. We’ll have to continue to work hard. The summer months are when we tend to run really well and some good tracks are coming up for us. We just have to keep working hard; hopefully, we can get this turned around.
Neff: Getting ready to go road racing, the first time out with the Gen-6 on a road racing track. What do you feel will be different and what will be the same compared to the previous car?
Paul Wolfe: I think the biggest change this year, going there with the Gen-6 car, is the rear end housing. The specs on the toe settings and the camber in the rear is one of the biggest differences. The cars are also lighter as well, but the center of gravity is also a little bit higher. There are some different variables there. One thing I don’t think will show up is the aero side of it. Especially at a place like Sonoma. I feel like it is much more of a mechanical style race track. The aero side of the new Gen-6 is not going to make much of a difference. Some of the mechanical pieces I spoke of could change a setup slightly, but I don’t feel like it will be a whole lot different from the things we’ve done there in the past.
Neff: Some of our other Tech Talk experts have noted that this new car likes to travel a lot more than the older car did, and they tend to travel more on a road course anyway. Have you found that to be true on this car and will that benefit it on a road course?
Paul Wolfe: I think road courses are in a little different category. Some of the characteristics of wanting to travel this car more is due to the aero characteristics of it. I feel like, as I said with Sonoma not being that much of an aero track, I don’t expect the setups to be drastically different. Typically, on a road course, you tend to travel the back of the car because you’re looking for forward drive, especially at a place like Sonoma. Typically, you run very soft in the rear spring package there and I don’t expect this weekend to be any different than it has been in the past.
Neff: Strategy and fuel mileage are paramount at road courses; you work the race backwards and make your pit decisions based on your fuel windows. You guys, for the most part, seem to get better gas mileage than everyone else. Do you feel that it will be an advantage for you as you head into Sonoma?
Paul Wolfe: I think we’ve done a good job with that and we’ve had a lot of success when it comes to fuel mileage racing. We definitely work hard at that and I expect that to be very similar this weekend. I don’t think the strategy will be much different this weekend. I think, sometimes at Sonoma it can become a split strategy where some of the guys will go for a two-stop race while some of the guys running at the back might go for a three-stop strategy just so they can get the fresh tires. I don’t expect it to look a whole lot different. I think you’ll see that again as well although I think the two-stop strategy has won the last two years in a row, for sure. I expect that to be the same, and guys who are struggling and running toward the back will throw out a little different strategy and if a caution falls, they’ll come get tires because it is almost like they have nothing to lose at that point.
Neff: Just a question about Brad on road courses. Didn’t really expect him to be a road racing ace. However, the last two years at Watkins Glen he’s finished second and had a heck of a race last year with Ambrose and Busch. Were you surprised to see that he’s turned into the road racer that he is?
Paul Wolfe: Yes and no. Obviously, it is good to see, and that is a big part of being successful in the Cup series — being really good at all styles of racetracks. He’s definitely shown the last couple of years, especially at Watkins Glen, that he is really as good as anyone at that racetrack. Now Sonoma, we’ve been decent, and I expect to be even better this year, but it is a little different style of a racetrack at Sonoma than Watkins Glen and a little different style setup. We continue to try and evolve our setups and make gains; we’ve obviously been strong at Watkins Glen and feel like we have a great baseline for that place. Sonoma, whether it is Brad’s style or something we do to the cars, we’ve been a top-10 car but we’ve never been one to contend for wins. With that in mind, we continue to try different setups and different thought processes on how to make the car get around that race track; we’re going to continue to do that this weekend.
Neff: Are you going to do anything fun besides racing while you’re out in Northern California?
Paul Wolfe: Racing is what I do that is funnest. I don’t expect to do a whole lot. Just working and sleeping. That is about it.
Wolfe might not be doing much besides working and sleeping this weekend. However, knowing the success that he has had with both team and driver, don’t be surprised if he ends up celebrating a win for the first time in 2013 after not having a top 5 at Sonoma before this weekend.
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