By Greg Klein
---- — Paul Wolfe didn’t take any shortcuts going from Milford to NASCAR, but he did take a few short tracks.
“It has been obviously a long road and a lot of hard work,” Wolfe, a 1995 graduate of Milford Central School, said of his journey from being a Wildcat to being the crew chief for Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge team. “I just continued to put myself around good people. I am very lucky to work for a good company in Penske Racing and a great driver with Brad.”
With one race to go in the 2012 season, Keselowski leads Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the Sprint Cup by 20 points. If Keselowski finishes in the top 15 of the final race, Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida, then he will win his first Cup championship. He can also win if he finishes 16th and leads one lap, or if he finishes 17th and leads the most laps in the race, no matter where Johnson finishes. As long as Johnson doesn’t win, Keselowski can still be 17 positions behind Johnson and win the championship.
“It is possible we have done better than some people might expect,” Wolfe said of Keselowski. “I feel like we have done a great job. All the departments at Penske have really stepped up.”
Keselowski first approached Wolfe about being his crew chief in 2009, but was turned down. When he started with his team at Penske, and Wolfe’s name came up, Keselowski reportedly told his bosses, “good luck with that; he already said no.”
However, by then, everything had changed for Wolfe, whose former team at CJM racing had lost funding.
“Originally, well, I consider myself a pretty loyal guy,” Wolfe said. “I was committed to my team at the time. At the end of that season, we lost our funding, so at that point, I looked at all my options. I had raced with Brad, and I saw what he was capable of doing. I thought he and I could work together and contend for the championship.”
The team has won one championship. In 2010, Wolfe and Keselowski gave Penske his first NASCAR national series championship in the Nationwide Series. Keselowski was also running at the Sprint Cup level that year. It was after the championship that Wolfe was offered the promotion to the Cup series.
The success of the team this year has surprised some in NASCAR since Johnson is a five-time champion and veteran of the sport, but it is Keselowski that has led for much of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He also drew some fire from other drivers last week in Phoenix when he raced to gain an advantage at a restart. Keselowski responded with fire of his own, blasting his critics.
“I don’t know if Brad has any friends in the garage or not,” Wolfe said. “When it comes down to racing for the championship, at the end of the day, we want to make sure we continue to do it our way.”
One thing is for certain, Keselowski has impressed his crew chief.
“One thing about Brad, is he works very hard,” Wolfe said. “He’s not a guy who goes out and sets the fastest lap time. He is a guy who has a very good feel for racing. He works very hard trying to understand how a race plays out and what he needs his car to do.
“He is a great leader to this team. It is just the way he carries himself. There is something about when Brad is around. He finds a way to motivate everybody.”
Johnson led the Chase by seven points going into the Phoenix race, but a blown tire caused him to crash and he finished a distant 32nd. The crash surprised even Wolfe.
“I thought going into Phoenix, we would have to win the race to have a chance,” he said. “I was caught off guard by the 48 car crashing. It was not their best weekend of racing, for sure. We are in a much better situation than we planned for or could have hoped for.”
Despite not needing a win in the final race, Wolfe said he is trying to keep everything the same this week.
“My mindset going into the weekend is not a whole lot different than the first nine races. The last thing you want to do is do something different and lose,” he said.
Neither Johnson nor Keselowski has ever won at the Miami track -- Keselowski has had only one top 15 finish there -- but Wolfe said he is confident for the final race.
“We’ve done very well on mile and a half tracks,” he said.
Wolfe said he never expected that he could be a NASCAR driver, but he wanted to get into the sport for a long time.
“I drove on a lot of local short tracks in upstate New York,” he said. “When I moved down south, the main thing is I just wanted to be in the sport of NASCAR. It is amazing how far we have gone in just our second year.”