Not a matter of if Brad Keselowski wins a championship, but when
Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe were a revelation in their first season of 2011 together in Sprint Cup, the driver and crew chief of Penske Racing's No. 2 Dodge teaming up for three victories and fifth in the championship.
Keselowski had been 25th in the points in his first full Cup season of 2010. Wolfe was a rookie Cup crew chief.
They had won the Nationwide Series championship in 2010 and that had earned Wolfe a promotion. It's a big step up, from triple A to the majors. The No. 2 didn't have many notes it could apply. At virtually every race track, Keselowski and Wolfe were starting from scratch and it was when they went back to tracks for a second time they met with their most success.
Keselowski's victory at Kentucky was an affirmation that Wolfe continues to put faster cars together when they go back to tracks for the second and third time. It in was the third victory, most in the series, in 17 races this season and six in one-and-a-half seasons.
Those are Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus-type numbers. They won three races in their first season of 2002 and three more in '03. Keselowski and Wolfe are ahead of them and on the same pace as the Tony Stewart/Greg Zipadelli combination that won nine races in their first two years together.
Johnson and Knaus have won five championships together, Stewart and Zipadelli two in the last decade. Keselowski and Wolfe are headed in the same direction. It's a matter of when they get to their first championship. It could be this season.
Keselowski crashed on the opening lap of practice at Kentucky and the Wolfe-led crew had the Dodge ready in time to get in line for qualifying. It didn't miss a beat in the race.
"This car was fast from the second we unloaded it," Keselowski said.
Keselowski finished seventh at Kentucky in 2011.
"I feel like as a team, we really ran well here last year," Wolfe said. "I feel like we continue to show that when we come back to places for a second time, we continue to get better. Whether it was in the primary ar or the back-up car, we tried to be smart about what we're doing and felt like we brought back a better race car."
Everybody saw Keselowski coming. He'd won six Nationwide races in 2008 and '09 for JR Motorsports and Rick Hendrick would have signed him if he'd had room. Keselowski also had given James Finch's Phoenix Racing a Cup win at Talladega in 2009 during a partial season.
Wolfe's ascension to Penske's Nationwide team was stealth-like. He'd grown up in upstate New York where his father drove dirt modifieds and raced karts before moving to the center of the home for NASCAR teams in Charlotte at age 18 in 1996. Wolfe found a job at Joe Gibbs Racing, working on the late model program for aspiring drivers J.D. and Coy Gibbs.
"J.D. gave me the opportunity to run some late models around Charlotte," Wolfe said. "I had raced karts for a long time, but never thought it would go any farther. I started meeting some people and had the opportunity to put a deal together to run the Busch North (now K & N East) in 2000."
Wolfe drove in 25 Busch North races over the next three seasons. He had eight top-fives and 15 top-10s.
"I began working with Tommy Baldwin in 2004, running some Busch North and Nationwide races and felt like we were doing pretty well," Wolfe said.
Baldwin sold his Nationwide operation to Ray Evernham in 2005. Wolfe didn't make it through the season.
"It never went anywhere," Wolfe said. "In fairness to myself, it was a new team, just trying to get going. I ran a few races later in the year with FitzBradshaw and then turned back to working on cars in 2006."
Wolfe drove in 16 Nationwide races and had four top-20 finishes.
"Definitely, my intention wasn't to drive when I first moved to Charlotte," Wolfe explained. "It's weird how it all worked out. The opportunity opened and I thought 'Maybe I can drive' and I spent five years trying to make it as a driver. It was an interesting turn, but we didn't have the funding to do it. The Nationwide Series was way more competitive than it is now. It was the peak of the sport for NASCAR, sponsorships were plentiful. I'm not knocking the Nationwide Series now, but there aren't as many competitive cars out there as back then.
"I was definitely disappointed it didn't work out. I still believe I can do it in the right situation and there are hundreds of drivers out there that have been in my situation that have felt the same way. I've been able to accept that. I've always worked hard at everything I've done. There was still a spot in the sport where I can be successful and that's what I decided to do."
Wolfe became a crew chief for the first time at FitzBradshaw in 2006 with driver Ruben Pardo in the K & N Series East. Pardo won on the road course at Lime Rock.
Wolfe moved up to FitzBradshaw's Nationwide team in '07 and also worked at Braun and CJM before Penske hired him in '10. Mike Bliss finished second at Memphis for the Wolfe-led FitzBradshaw team in '07 and Josh Wise had five top-10s in 17 starts in '08.
"I guess I'm fortunate," Wolfe said. "Penske called me. They had seen I'd done a great job and the best job I could with what I had. I was working with really small teams, not real big budgets and we really had to work hard with what I had. I never won races (in Nationwide), but what we were able to do with what we had was like winning races.
"I felt like if I got in the right situation with full funding and the right resources, to be able to do it right, I knew I could win races. That scenario played out once I got to Penske. I had a guy like Brad who could win races and right out of the gate, we hit it off. We were fast. From there, it was building communication to be a championship-level team and with what we had to build on, it didn't take us long."
Keselowski had six wins and 26 top-fives in winning the Nationwide title in 2010. They've won six of the last 41 races since joining forces in Cup.
"It's a great accomplishment," Wolfe said. "I'm proud of it. This sport is tough and we've gone through races where we've struggled. There's a lot of ups and downs. When you have the good guys and guys who work hard, they're the ones who cycle back to the top. We're still in the building stages with this program, but we've shown we can be successful.
"I still feel like, as a Cup crew chief for a year-and-a-half, I'm still not operating at full potential. That comes with time. We're still learning. There's areas Brad knows he needs to be better, too. Obviously, there's tracks out there where he excels as good as anybody. We feel like we're continuing to improve."
Penske signed Keselowski and Wolfe to contract extensions following the 2011 season. It's a partnership with the potential to be the next Johnson and Knaus or Stewart and Zipadelli.