Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe will arrive at Homestead-Miami Speedway on the brink of their first Sprint Cup championship, 20 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, going into the season finale. Who would have ventured a bet that when Penske Racing put them together in the Sprint Cup Series at the start of the 2011 season that they would come so far, so quickly together?
In 2010 Keselowski was 25th in the points in his first full Cup season under crew chief Jay Guy, while Wolfe had never been a crew chief in the Cup series. However, the pair dominated the Nationwide Series in 2010, their first season together, with six wins and 26 top-five finishes in 36 races to clinch the Series title.
During that season, they developed the critical component of communication and chemistry -- when a driver says what the car is doing and the crew chief figures out how to make it better. But doing it in the Nationwide Series isn't the same as doing it in the Sprint Cup Series, where you have to race against the best.
"You'd like to think you've probably learned something along the way," Wolfe said. "There is nothing big that stands out. I think it's a whole other level from Nationwide to the Cup series. Our championship that year [in Nationwide], as we got down to the closing few races, we really had such a points lead that it wasn't like a battle we've had with [Johnson], per se. Can't really compare it a whole lot, really.
"It's something that's grown and just the communication between [Keselowski] and myself, obviously, that's gotten stronger and made us a lot better as we continue down this path."
Keselowski wasn't expected to be a Chase contender in 2011, and through 19 races he was 23rd in points. But as the series went to tracks for the second time, he began making dramatic jumps in the points. For example, he finished 23rd the first time around at Pocono and won the second. He went from 25th to third at Michigan, 18th to first at Bristol and 38th to 12th at Richmond. He barely made the Chase, 11th in points.
"We didn't have any notes we could use at the start of the season," Wolfe explained last year. "We started from scratch. When we went back to tracks for a second time, we were a lot better."
The information that Wolfe could apply wasn't restricted to the same tracks. He could use it for the same type of track, too. As a result, the No. 2 Dodge was stronger across the board in the second half of the season.
When the team got to the Chase, it challenged for six races and finished in the top-five four times. Keselowski ended up fifth in the Chase, building a solid foundation for the current season.
This season Keselowski racked up five wins, 13 top-fives and 23 top-10s, improving from three wins, 10 top-fives and 14 top-10s from 2011.
"I think he has matured over the last few years," Wolfe said. "I think I have in my role as well. I think a lot of that just comes with experience and time. You're got to understand and learn the sport, learn how it works and what you need to do to be successful. The guys that work really hard at that and pay attention, they usually find their way."
Wolfe has labored diligently, too. Raised in the upstate New York town of Milford, he moved to the NASCAR mecca of Charlotte, N.C., a year after graduating from high school, and got a job working on the late model cars of JD and Coy Gibbs.
"Originally, I just wanted to get into the sport of NASCAR," Wolfe said. "I didn't really think driving would ever be an option for me. Obviously, along the way, I've been able to do that some. I think that's helped me. But just growing up as a kid watching NASCAR on TV and local short track racing in upstate New York, when I had the opportunity to move down south, that's what I did and I just learned it from there."
Wolfe drove in 25 Busch North, now NASCAR's K & N East, and 16 Nationwide races before his opportunities ended. He became a crew chief in both series and was working at CJM Racing in Nationwide in 2009 when Penske spotted him.
"At the time, we had a few different drivers in the car at the end of the year," Wolfe said. "And Mike Bliss drove a good bit for us. We didn't win any races, but we were running in the top five and had fast cars. At the time, Mike was racing [Penske's Justin] Allgaier for a top five in the Nationwide points. For a very small team, underfunded, we were putting pretty fast race cars out there. I believe that's a little bit of what [Penske] saw."
Wolfe knows Keselowski and the No. 2 team have work to do this weekend at Homestead-Miami. It's one of the oldest clichés in racing, but he saw tangible evidence that anything can happen last week at Phoenix when Johnson had a tire go down and he hit the wall. You don't expect something like that to happen to Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, who won five straight Cup championships from 2006 through 2010.
The Sprint Cup's top title-winning driver and crew chief combinations have been Richard Petty and Dale Inman, with seven championships form 1964 to 1979; Dale Earnhardt and Kirk Shelmerdine, with four from 1986 to 1991; Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham, with three from 1995 to 1998; and Johnson with Knaus.
Keselowski and Wolfe have shown the potential to join that list of drivers and crew chiefs who have dominated Cup for history-making periods. They have a long way to go, but getting the first championship Sunday will position them to make their run.
"It's been a long road and a lot of hard work," Wolfe said of his career. "I look forward to our future together. I feel like, as a team we're still not probably at our full potential yet. So, it's definitely encouraging to be in our second year and challenging for a championship. We're going to hopefully challenge for a lot more here in the near future."