NASCAR Media Conference
November 13, 2012
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to today's NASCAR teleconference with Paul Wolfe, crew chief of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge for Penske Racing. Brad Keselowski leads five‑time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion, Jimmie Johnson, by 20 points going into Ford Championship weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway. Keselowski clinches his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship with a finish of 15th or better, or 16th and at least one lap led, or 17th and the most laps led, even if Johnson wins and leads the most laps.
Paul, with one race to go before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship is decided, what is your team's mindset, and how have you prepared going into Sunday's race at Homestead Miami Speedway this weekend?
PAUL WOLFE: Well, our mindset going into this weekend is not a whole lot different than what we've done the first nine races of the chase. We just want to continue doing the things we've done up to this point, and we feel like if we do that, we should have a shot to close this deal out on Sunday.
The guys have done a great job to this point on the Miller Lite Dodge, and, they're preparing the car as we would any other week and just trying to stay in our normal routine. The last thing we need to do is try to do something we've been doing different all season. I think that's how mistakes are possibly made.
Q. This has been described as a heavyweight fight, which sort of suggested it's Wolfe versus Knaus on the undercard. Can you address what about Chad's direction of the 48 operation most impresses you and whether you have anything more than a nodding relationship in the garage area with him?
PAUL WOLFE: Sure. Well, obviously Chad's results speak for what he has been able to lead over there with the 48 bunch. But those guys to me what defines a championship caliber team is a team that can take a really bad day and turn it into a good points day. I think the days when you have winning cars seems like things sometimes can be easier. But it's being able to overcome adversity and maximizing points on bad days. That's something that, obviously, we've seen from that 48 bunch. You know, you never know what they're capable of until race day. They've shown that time and time again.
So as far as our relationship, it's not much more than what you said is a nod. But I talk to Chad real quick before practice last weekend, and obviously congratulated him on his win, and just basically told him this is what it's all about and having a lot of fun doing it. He felt the same way.
Q. Based on the quantity and quality of email we've been receiving over the last couple of weeks it's pretty clear that some people in Michigan who are not regular NASCAR fans are really tuned into this now that a guy from Michigan is threatening to win the championship. So I just preface that by asking, what do you think Brad brings to this that people who don't really understand NASCAR need to know about him? He's a young guy. He's really taken the bull by the horns here. What is it about Brad Keselowski that's getting this done?
PAUL WOLFE: I think it's his dedication and drive to be a champion, all the hard work he puts in. He's a great leader to this Miller Lite team. He's a great motivator, and he's a guy that I see is not willing to give up. He'll do whatever it takes to find success.
There is something about when Brad's around, he finds a way to be able to motivate everyone around him. I think that's obviously important in running for a championship. Having a guy like him around that doesn't necessarily have to always say certain things to motivate you, but just the sense in how he carries himself. Like I said, all the time and dedication that he puts into the race team and, obviously, everybody's getting rewarded for that.
Q. Just to follow up on that a little bit. How about Brad as a driver? What are the aspects of actually driving the car that's kind of put him in this position?
PAUL WOLFE: Well, I think one of the things about Brad, as I said, he works very hard. He's maybe not the guy that's going to go out there and set the fastest lap time. But he's a guy that's going to go out there and understand the kind of feel or what he's going to need to be around and have a shot to win at the end of the race, and that's very important.
There are a lot of guys out there that are capable of putting fast laps down and running fast from time to time; but when you look at Brad, he's that guy that's always just hanging out there until it really counts. A lot of that is just his hard work in trying to understand how a race is going to play out, what he needs his car to do at the end of the race. And a lot of these races are very long events. The track changes a lot. Trying to prepare for that and understand what he's going to want out of his car, he does really well with that. I think you see that in the drivers that are successful like that.
Q. A quick follow‑up, does he get you to watch that Ray Lewis video?
PAUL WOLFE: I have not watched a video yet, no.
Q. Even though it was misfortune by the 48 at Phoenix that put you guys in a commanding lead going into Homestead. The No. 2 team hasn't backed into your spot at all. You guys have taken the lead under green at Phoenix a lap or two before Johnson crashed. I was wondering if you could speak to that, and how it feels to have delivered such consistency with you and Brad over the course of the CHASE that you've run so well. You mentioned the respect you have for the 48 team, but to visibly beat them and outrun them every week during the fight for the Chase?
PAUL WOLFE: It's been a great Chase for us. There's no doubt about it. Everybody wanted to look at the stat books each and every week. We didn't always have the best stats, maybe. 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. I was definitely caught off guard by the 48. 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, and then they had the tire issue.
So was caught off guard by that a little bit. But we still went there and stuck to our plan and did what we needed to do. Now we're in a much better situation than we could have planned for, or hoped for going into the final race. From here it's go down to Homestead. We know this is a great racetrack for us. We've been very strong on the mile‑and‑a‑halves. Goodyear is bringing the same tire we were on in Chicago and Texas, so we have some confidence in where we're at with that. 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.
Q. That performance, do you feel that influenced the 48 at all? Do you feel like you forced them into some errors because you were so strong and you caught a lot of people off guard?
PAUL WOLFE: Well, I don't really know if it did. I think we've probably possibly run better than some may have expected going into it. So from that standpoint, I guess maybe you could look at it and say that. I don't know what everyone's expectations of the two teams were starting the Chase. But I feel like we've done a great job.
There's been a lot of hard work that's gone into this from all departments here at Penske Racing. Everyone really stepped up for this effort and went above and beyond anything we could have asked of them. I think that's a lot of the reason we're in the position we're in.
Q. If you didn't hear Brad's comments in the media center after the race, you might be aware. But he was talking about sort of the criticism he took from some of the other drivers about the way he drove on the restart at Texas. Do you think that there is a double standard from people about the way he drives on the track in that people think that he is maybe too aggressive or pushes things to the limit too much?
PAUL WOLFE: I don't know. Maybe a couple years ago you could say that. But to be honest with you, that's the most aggressive I've seen Brad all year. I think he's done a great job. We've had fast race cars. He hasn't had to push issues. But we're talking about coming down to the final few races of racing for a championship. And I think that just shows how hard he's going to run, and what this means to him.
I don't know if Brad has a lot of friends in the garage or not. I don't know how he feels about that. But at the end of the day I feel like he's doing all the right things. If people are upset with him, they'll be upset with him. But I haven't seen him do anything in my eyes that I felt has been out of line. If I did, obviously we'd talk about it. But I think he's done a great job and shown that he's in this to the end and he's going to race everyone hard.
Q. Do you think is there a garage etiquette? I think from a non‑racer point of view, and a fan point of view or media point of view, we look at it if a championship was on the line and it's the guys who are one and two in the title battle lined up on a restart racing for the win for the championship, that they should be entitled to race all out. Is there an etiquette or something? Because we hear guys like Kyle Busch say that Brad maybe did something wrong or he raced him too high or he ran him up the track or something. Are there things that are or are not allowed to be done?
PAUL WOLFE: I don't know. Maybe that's a better question for Brad. In my eyes, like I said, I didn't see anything wrong. Like I said, when it comes down to racing for a championship, maybe, there are a lot of things that we've probably done in the past that's probably not the norm.
But at the end of the day, we're going to do it our way. We might not make a lot of friends along the way, but I feel good about what we've done as a team. Like I said, we're going to try to continue that this weekend at Homestead.
Q. Brad, this may not interest anybody else, but coming from your hometown newspaper, we're sort of interested in how you get from Milford Central School to crew chief with a chance to win the Sprint Cup?
PAUL WOLFE: Well, it's been a long road and a lot of hard work. Just continuing to try to put myself around good people and learn the sport. I feel like I've been able to do that. It's put me in with a great company in Penske Racing, and a great driver with Brad.
I think Brad and my relationship is a big part of it and the communication. 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 into our second year and challenging for a championship. We're going to hopefully challenge for a lot more here in the near future.
Q. What year did you graduate from Milford?
PAUL WOLFE: '95.
Q. And just in terms of your evolution, you wanted to be a racer originally and then you worked your way into crew chief or into the pit?
PAUL WOLFE: Originally, I just wanted to get into the sport of NASCAR. 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 just learned it from there.
Q. A lot has been made of things this year about how Brad seems to be a different Brad than he was a couple years ago on the track and maybe personally to be able to talk about Texas and the restarts and what not. Is that something you would agree with? If so, can you explain things that you've seen that would make you say that this is a more mature racer?
PAUL WOLFE: I think you're right. I think he has matured over the last few years. I think as I have in my role as well. I think a lot of that just comes with experience and time. You've 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, I feel like usually find their way.
I feel like that's kind of where Brad's at at this point. Obviously, he's shown that he's capable of winning races and contending for a championship as anybody in the garage. He's worked really hard at it. And I think he deserves to be where he's at, for sure.
Q. Is there anything you can point to particularly that you saw that maybe you'd say, oh, he wouldn't have done that three years ago or he would have done that differently?
PAUL WOLFE: Probably just understanding the race and what he needs out of his car. What the limits of his car are. Obviously, he's very good on his equipment and that's very important. I think that's one of the things that we continue to show week‑in and week‑out is that he's always around at the end, and really manages his race car well.
Q. You talked about this week trying to do things the way you've done them all during the Chase. I'm just wondering in the back of your mind, you and Brad just seemed like such level‑headed guys and on top of the game and everything. What if something unexpected happens before the race? Is that in the back of your mind like how will we handle this if something comes along that you're not expecting?
PAUL WOLFE: We've always got to be prepared for the worst. We've done the best job we can preparing for this weekend's event. It's something that this team's done really well is being able to overcome adversity I feel like over the last couple of years. We do that really well.
So we're going to just do the best job at controlling the things we can, and we'll do the best we can at dealing with any situation that may come up. But we definitely don't want to change our thought process going into the weekend. We want to go down there and contend for the win. We know we're capable of that. We've shown we've got the speed in our race cars and all the guys on the team are capable of that.
So short of just a few small things on the race car from a mileage standpoint is making sure that we're extra careful with things like that we're not going to change our game plan of how we go into the weekend. As the race plays out, if we feel like we need to adjust or change a little bit, we can do that on the fly. But as of right now, it will be business as usual.
Q. Brad was talking and kind of told part of the story in the past a few times about how he first approached you about you being his crew chief I think in August of '09. And said you looked him straight in the eye and said you didn't want to do it. He said a few months later at Penske they were kind of going over possible crew chief people and said, well, we think we want to pursue this Paul Wolfe. And Brad said good luck, he's already told me no. And they said, well, we've been talking to him for the last few weeks. What changed? Why did you originally say no, and what changed your mindset thinking this might be a good opportunity for you?
PAUL WOLFE: Well, originally, I like to consider myself a pretty loyal guy. I had committed to the race team I was with at the time. They were giving me everything I had asked for, and what I wanted to do in building a race team. But come the end of the season, there was no funding there to continue on. So at that point I was looking at all of my options that were out there. 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. Just seeing what he had done in the past and the opportunity was here at Penske to do that. It would be a brand‑new start‑up team and that was something that really excited me.
Seeing a guy like Brad that I knew could win races and an opportunity to build a race team. The combination of the two things is what brought me here to Penske.
Q. Forgive me, the team you were with before that, what team were you with at the time?
PAUL WOLFE: That was CJM Racing.
Q. Going back to a couple of questions ago, how do you balance pushing parts or pieces or set‑up to the limit when you know that you can finish 15th and maybe not have possibly push a piece to the limit this weekend?
PAUL WOLFE: Well, it's a tough balance. Just sitting here every day this week preparing and thinking about that a little bit. But like I said before, the last thing I want to do is change my mindset or my thought process of how I go racing every weekend, because I feel like if I do that, I'm going to miss something.
So for the most part the guys back here in the shop, assembling these cars and there are mileage limits on parts and pieces that we typically run during the season. We would look at some of those pieces and not err towards the pieces that are close to being mileaged out.
But from a set‑up standpoint, I don't expect to change that a whole lot. I feel like 15th is not like that's a cake walk. We know we've performed way above that, and we're capable of much more than that. But it's going to be tough. By no means do we want to go into Homestead thinking we're just going to go down there and ride around and finish 15th and all is well, because that's kind of scary to even think about like that right now.
I feel like it was great that we were able to get the points lead back. But our goal coming out of Phoenix was let's hope we're within three so we can go to Homestead and control our own destiny, meaning we can go down there and win the race and win the championship.
So, obviously, we're in a much better situation than that, but I don't see us this weekend changing our approach to anything less than that, going down there and trying to contend for this win.
Q. I know this is going to sound a little funny. But I'm serious in the sense that Brad was fined this week for having a phone in his car. He's on probation for it. Are you going to check with him to make sure that you don't have your phone with you, do you? You can't risk you being caught with it this week.
PAUL WOLFE: Yeah, Brad and I have briefly talked about it, and he obviously handled that with everybody at NASCAR. I don't know, just a small miscommunication or what happened. I don't know what happened. I haven't been involved in a whole lot.
But definitely remind them to make sure it's not a habit because of not even‑‑ that never even crossed my mind to be honest with you, we get so involved in worrying about how to make the race car go around the track that, obviously, Brad's cell phone is not on my mind a whole lot. I'll definitely remind him this weekend.
Q. The way that the crew chiefs position has evolved over the years, you're part coach, you're part psychiatrist, you're part confidante, and you're part friends. Drivers are looking for all of that each and every week. From where you're sitting what will it mean to Brad if he pulls this off on Sunday?
PAUL WOLFE: What's it going to mean to Brad?
PAUL WOLFE: Well, I think it's huge. His family history and how they got started. How hard he's had to work to get to this point. I don't know how much time he's spent thinking about this. I know me personally I know it's human nature and hard not to do, but I try to block it out and not let my mind go there. We still have our work cut out for us this weekend.
Obviously, it will be huge, huge for Penske Racing and everyone involved. But to be honest with you, like I've said, I tried not to let my mind go there right now and stay focused on trying to go to Homestead and contend for the win.
Q. People were asking you how you changed from the last championship that you won together until now. I've got to ask you, I think back to the Atlanta crash and how he came in to Pocono despite all the pain that he must have been enduring at that point. Can you look at that chapter as a turning point perhaps to where you guys were to where you are now?
PAUL WOLFE: I'm not sure it was necessarily a turning point. I can definitely say that I think everybody on the team kind of looked at Brad a different way after that weekend. I think he proved to everyone how mentally strong he is and what he's capable of doing. It surely did for me.
I was there for that accident, and I spent a lot of time in the hospital with him. By no means did I think we'd be sitting in victory lane that next week, so pretty amazing. The guy is very dedicated and is working very hard at this. I don't believe you could find anybody in the garage that's working as hard as he is and as dedicated as he is to trying to win this championship. He's a great guy to work for. He's a great leader and makes it a lot of fun for sure.
Q. Just wanted to ask you specifically about Homestead itself. What concerns you the most about that track in terms of getting set up right that is maybe unique from some of the other tracks. What kinds of things are you looking at going in that separate that track from some of the others? You touched about the tire being the same earlier as Chicago. But what things are specific to Homestead that concern you this weekend?
PAUL WOLFE: Sure, good question. The one thing I said, the tire is similar or the same tire as we did run at Texas and Chicago. A mile and a half track, it's obviously got its own shape to it without the trial or dogleg as we run at Texas. The way the car loads up through the corner is much different than the normal intermediate style track. Only going there once a year makes it tougher too because you have a lot less information to pull from.
As I said, the mile‑and‑a‑half tracks have been good for us. We feel like we're prepared to address anything we need to. We feel like we should be able to have similar performance to what we've had on the mile-and-a-halves in the Chase so far.
Q. Can you talk about how you came to the attention of the Penske operation or whether, in fact, you initiated the contact? And also given that you're with teams that were pretty much jousting with windmills half the time, was there any sense before that that you were spinning your wheels?
PAUL WOLFE: As far as the deal with Penske, I think probably what got that started was looking back to 2009. In 2009 I was with CJM Racing, and at the time we had a few different drivers in the car at the end of the year. And Mike Bliss drove a good bit for us. And we were able to‑‑ we didn't win any races, but we were running in the Top 5 and had fast race cars.
At the time I think Mike was racing Allgaier for a Top 5 in the Nationwide points. But I don't know if they were paying attention a little bit to how we were running because of that, and saw that for a very small team, underfunded, that we were putting pretty fast race cars out there. I believe that's a little bit of what they saw.
Q. Who called you? Was it somebody like Cindric?
PAUL WOLFE: Yeah, I met with Michael Nelson and Tim Cindric was my first meeting, and was able to get together with RP and had a lot of good conversations. Obviously, they knew Brad was on board with it, because he had reached out to me earlier in the season. Obviously, it's been a great transition for me.
Q. Was there a sense, was there any building frustration that it wasn't moving faster for you in terms of being a top‑notch team instead of somebody that was underfunded?
PAUL WOLFE: Honestly, it never really crossed my mind. I guess maybe because I didn't really know any different. I started working on smaller teams and having to make do with very little. I hadn't had the opportunity to be around a real big team. So, no, to be honest with you, I look back at a lot of those experiences and teams I worked for and different drivers and I feel like in a lot of ways it's made me better today. I had to work my way up through a lot of those smaller teams and trying to make do with very little. I think it's made me a lot better in my role today.
Q. Last one, how good a driver were you?
PAUL WOLFE: I was great, isn't that what we all think? Obviously, I wasn't good enough or I'd still be driving. Everybody always tells me I do a way better job at crew chiefing than I was driving. So I'm definitely happy and contend with my role now.
Q. It seems like today in the sport that more is better. More teams, more input, more notes, more everything. Yet you guys are succeeding as a two‑car Dodge team with no satellite teams, plus all the drama that you guys had with the 22 car this year. Have you all sort of broke the mold on that theory that you need more to be successful?
PAUL WOLFE: Yeah, I guess we have. That's what you typically think that more is better. Dodge has done a great job at supporting us. We've been able to accomplish a lot with them. For myself, in the three years I've been here, we've accomplished a lot. I know the relationship with Penske goes much farther than that.
In a lot of ways I think it's not a bad thing to be the only Dodge team. We definitely get all the attention. I think there is a lot to be said for that.
It's definitely different than some of the teams. Looking at Hendrick Motorsports, for instance, that does have a lot of teams to pull information from. But at the end of the day -- but this is the deal we're in. We've made the most of it, and I'm happy with where we're at.
Q. Comparing you to Jimmie Johnson, a lot of people say they've got five championships and all this experience. You and Brad have won a Nationwide championship together. How does this compare to the other titles you guys won in this run up to? And is there anything you've learned during that year that you've been able to sort of apply to what you have now?
PAUL WOLFE: That's a tough one. Winning a championship at different levels is great. You'd like to think you've probably learned something along the way. 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 as we got down to the closing few races, we really had such a points lead that it wasn't like a battle that we had with the 48, per se. Can't really compare it a whole lot, really. It's something that's grown and just the communication between him and myself, obviously that's gotten stronger, and has made us a lot better as we continue down this path.
Q. In contention to winning this Chase, what are some of the things you do during the week to relax and just keep yourself busy?
PAUL WOLFE: Not a whole lot, to be honest with you. Our weeks are pretty short here. We're in meetings throughout the week, and preparing the race cars and with our busy travel schedule; we're flying out on Thursday. So there really hasn't been a whole lot of time to do much of anything just being around friends and family and make it nice. Obviously have a lot of nice people around me, and it definitely makes things a lot easier for sure.
Q. With switching to Ford in 2013, what are you going to do as crew chief, like read books or stay up on Ford? Do you have to do that or is it a pretty much transition since the cars are pretty much the same just different in body types next year?
PAUL WOLFE: Well, there will be a few different things that we'll have to deal with. I think just some of the communication with the folks at Ford and how their support works and what support they have for the race teams and is it different than our relationship was with Dodge? There will be some transitioning there.
But from the car side of it, I think this is obviously a great year for this to happen with everyone changing the bodies for 2013. It's going to be a whole new aero package for everyone. So I think that will definitely play into our favor for making this transition a lot easier. I don't see it being, you know ‑‑ the normal transition from the 2012 to 2013 car is more of a bigger challenge for us than necessarily going from the Dodge to the Ford.
Q. You've kind of touched on your past, obviously, all the experience it's taken for you to get to this point. What do you think prepares you most to weather the championship?
PAUL WOLFE: What prepares me most? The way we've approached this Chase this year, I think we said it from race one when we won at Chicago, was we were going to go into this Chase and we were going to be aggressive and do all the things that we did in the preseason to get us to the point where we were at. Some people might have believed it or not.
But I think we showed that as we went throughout the Chase. We weren't going to change what we were doing. I think it's worked really well for us.
I can't say that we've changed a whole lot or did things differently for this championship than we'd do any other week. So for me it I've tried to just stay focused on race to race and treat it like it's a regular season race. It seems to have worked pretty well for us.
Q. Could you kind of describe what the Penske Racing and the garage operation that they have over there, how does that affect your team?
PAUL WOLFE: Oh, I think it's great. When you look at all the success Penske Racing has had in Motorsports, not just on the NASCAR side, but all the different series and success and championships, things they've accomplished, it sets quite a standard. I think everybody respects what they've been able to accomplish here.
If we could go on to win the Sprint Cup Championship, that would be really great. I feel like we've got as good a chance as anybody as we go into this weekend.
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