AP FILE PHOTO
This Nov. 3 photo shows crew chief Paul Wolfe, left, and a fellow crew member talking with Brad Keselowski, right, following a practice session at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Paul Wolfe wasn’t interested in working with Brad Keselowski when the driver first approached him about a potential pairing back in August 2009.
“I told him, ‘Hey, man, I want you to come over and crew chief this deal,’” Keselowski said of the conversation. “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘No, I don’t want to do it.’”
Wolfe was content at CJM Racing, and had made a commitment to the Nationwide Series team. And even if he were to leave, he wasn’t sure he wanted to team with Keselowski, who had had some on-track incidents with Wolfe’s driver.
“I think he was kind of mad at me because I had wrecked his car,” Keselowski joked.
A few months later, without Keselowski’s knowledge, Penske Racing officials approached Wolfe about joining the organization. When Keselowski found out, he told the team not to waste its time.
“I kind of laughed and said, ‘Good luck,’” Keselowski said. “They said, ‘We’ve been talking to him the last two weeks and he wants to do it.’”
So what changed?
Funding, for one. Wolfe had given CJM his word, but the team circumstances changed at the end of 2009 and Wolfe needed a job.
“There was no funding there to continue on, so at that point I was looking at all of my options that were out there,” Wolfe said. “As I sat down and looked at them, I had seen, obviously I had raced with Brad and seen what he was able to do, and I felt like together him and I could hopefully win races and contend for championships.”
Keselowski moved full-time to Penske Racing in 2010, and was partnered with Wolfe in the Nationwide Series. They clicked instantly, winning six races and scoring 26 top-five finishes in 35 starts while winning the Nationwide title for Roger Penske’s first NASCAR championship.
Keselowski, however, was flailing in the Sprint Cup Series. He scored just two top-10s all year and finished 25th in points, and Wolfe was moved up to be his Cup crew chief the next year. They hit their stride midsummer, winning three races to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and finished fifth in the final standings.
Keselowski and Wolfe were rewarded in December with multiyear contract extensions, and now find themselves poised to win their first Sprint Cup championship on Sunday. They go into the season finale with a 20-point lead over five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, needing only to finish 15th or better at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the title.
The win would be the first championship for Penske, the most successful owner in open-wheel history who has never won a Cup title in 29 years of NASCAR participation.
Wolfe isn’t getting too far ahead of himself. The No. 2 team has gotten to this point by following a plan, and not getting caught up in outside chatter.
Johnson’s win at Martinsville pushed him passed Keselowski for the points lead, and his win the next week at Texas pushed his lead to seven points as the series headed to Phoenix, one of Johnson’s best tracks. Wolfe kept his team focused and didn’t let outside chatter rattle them.
“Everybody wanted to look at the stat books each and every week. We didn’t always have the best stats, maybe,” he said. “We’ve grown so much as a team over the years. I think it’s hard to look back at those things, and I think we’ve proven that throughout the Chase. We felt like we needed to go into Phoenix and win that race to put us in position to have a shot at it going into the final race.”
It was clear early at Phoenix that Keselowski had the better car, and as the weekend progressed, Johnson never caught up. It never rattled Wolfe, though, who could have tried to overanalyze the situation or wonder if Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus was playing mind games with him.
“I was definitely caught off guard by the 48,” Wolfe said. “I expected those guys to run much better than they did. It just seemed like they were never able to get it turned around all weekend. But we still went there and stuck to our plan and did what we needed to do.”
Keselowski ran in the top 10 almost the entire race, and even passed Kyle Busch for the lead. Moments after doing so, a blown tire sent Johnson crashing into the wall and gave Keselowski the cushion he’ll take into Homestead.
“Now we’re in a much better situation than we could have planned for, or hoped for going into the final race,” Wolfe said.
“From here it’s go down to Homestead. If we go down there and do the things we know we’re capable of, I feel like we’re going to be in good position.”MORE IN Sports WireMIAMI — Draft night belonged to Ben Simmons.
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