Driver and crew chief: Opposites attract wins

jutter@charlotteobserver.comNovember 10, 2012 

NASCAR Texas Auto Racing

Crew chief Paul Wolfe, left, and a fellow crew member talk with Brad Keselowski, right, following a practice session for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Tim Sharp)

TIM SHARP — AP

  • Points Leaders
    Jimmie Johnson2339
    Brad Keselowski-7
    Clint Bowyer-36
    Kasey Kahne-58
    Matt Kenseth-72
    Jeff Gordon-72
    Denny Hamlin-73
    Tony Stewart-80
    Martin Truex Jr.-80
    Greg Biffle-83
    Kevin Harvick-101
    Dale Earnhardt Jr.-151

— He is, in fact, a true lone Wolfe.

Brad Keselowski is a young, brash – his competitors might say arrogant and unrepentant – driver who loves social media and has no qualms drawing attention to himself.

His crew chief in the Sprint Cup Series, Paul Wolfe, is just the opposite.

Actually, “opposite” might not be a strong enough word.

“I don’t know what most people in the garage’s perception of me is now, but I can probably come across as a jerk, just because I’m quiet,” said Wolfe, his voice barely audible over the roar of practice at Phoenix International Raceway.

“I’m quiet. I keep to myself. I just kind of do my thing; I’m not really very sociable. I feel like when I come to the race track, I’m here to do my job and I try to do it the best way I know how.”

Keselowski, who enters Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 well within striking distance of his first series championship in just his third full season, shares the same objective, even if his path there is a different one.

Keselowski isn’t afraid to engage fans or fellow competitors on “hot button” topics in the sport. He was once fined by NASCAR for criticizing its much-publicized move to fuel-injection technology last season.

During the course of his career, Keselowski has drawn the ire of many drivers, including public run-ins with the likes of Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and others.

On the surface, those actions might seem in detriment to the well-ordered, nose-to-the-grindstone operation Wolfe runs with Penske Racing’s No. 2 Dodge team.

But here’s a little secret.

“I don’t really tell Brad this, but probably 90 percent of the time the stuff he puts out there, I – me and the team – believe is true,” Wolfe said.

“We’ve gotten to the point now where if Brad is running his mouth, he usually goes out there the next day and backs it up. You have to respect that about him.

“There are a lot of drivers that probably feel the same way Brad does, but they are just not willing to say it. That is something I admire about Brad and I don’t think there is anything wrong with it.”

It would be difficult to argue with the record.

Keselowski, 28, and Wolfe won the 2010 Nationwide Series championship together in what was for both their first season with the Penske organization.

That same year Keselowski also ran full time in Cup, but with a different crew chief and with far less positive results.

Before the start of the 2011 season, team owner Roger Penske moved Wolfe up with Keselowski on the Cup side, and other than a slow start to the season, the success both enjoyed on the Nationwide side returned.

After finishing 25th in the series standings in 2010 in Cup, Keselowski won three races in 2011 and qualified for the Chase for the first time, ending up fifth in points.

This season, he and the No. 2 team have improved in virtually all areas – more wins (five), more top-five and top-10 finishes and more laps led. With two races remaining, Keselowski is within seven points of leader Jimmie Johnson, a five-time series champion.

Last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Johnson and Keselowski finished first and third, respectively, with Keselowski losing the lead to Johnson with just two laps remaining.

When the outcome didn’t go as Keselowski hoped, he asked Wolfe to keep the guys on his team “pumped up” and to remind them he wasn’t giving up.

None of that was necessary, Wolfe said.

“The guys on my race team are not the type of guys that need people to be patting them on the back. They’re all racers, they work hard,” he said. “We don’t need outside things to motivate us. We just want to go race and be successful.”

For Wolfe, part of that comes from his background, which many in NASCAR many not be aware.

Wolfe began his career as a driver, often working on his own cars. He made 40 starts in what is now the K&N Pro Series East, one in K&N West and 16 in what is now the Nationwide Series.

It was during a stint as a driver at Fitz-Bradshaw Racing where Wolfe, 35, first transitioned into the role of crew chief.

There are so many ways Keselowski and Wolfe are different.

Yet, they remain the same in the only one that really matters – performance.

“I think that he and I have a very special dynamic that’s hard to quantify,” Keselowski said of Wolfe. “It’s a relationship where over time it’s built on trust and every step you take, every day that you work together or live around each other, you go through those moments where you’re challenged and you’re looking at each other to react.”

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