Dodge Motorsports interview: Paul Wolfe

Dodge Motorsports press release

PAUL WOLFE (Crew Chief, No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger R/T)

BOTH DODGES QUALIFIED FOR THE CHASE FOR THE NASCAR SPRINT CUP. COMMENT ON TECHNICAL RELATIONSHIP WITH DODGE. “I think going into the season, when Dodge decided to only focus on working with Penske and being the only two (full-time) Cup cars in the series, I think a lot of people probably thought they were crazy and didn’t really understand it. But I think it’s obviously paid off. The results I think are showing that; they are able to give all the attention and focus just to these two race cars. You know, sometimes you’d like to think you’d have other teams to lean on. The cool thing about Dodge is they continue to come back to us wanting feedback, what they can do to be better, so they’re always trying to grow the program, trying to be able to give us all we want. It’s really helped. As we go farther down the road with the relationship, I think that’ll continue to get better and stronger and they’ll understand where they can help us more and vice versa and just continue to build a great race team.”

Brad Keselowski, Penske Racing Dodge
Brad Keselowski, Penske Racing Dodge

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

HOW DID YOU GO FROM UP AND COMING YOUNG DRIVER TO CREW CHIEF? HOW DIFFICULT WAS THAT TRANSITION? “Really, probably the reason it wasn’t as difficult is because my first start in this sport was building race cars when I moved to North Carolina in ’96. So I started out building ‘em, working on ‘em, understanding what it took to build one of these things. Then when I got the opportunity to drive, I think at that point that helped me in my driving. I worked real hard at that on and off for four or five years and was just never really able to get an opportunity where I could continue to succeed and find the success that I needed to stay driving at this level in the sport. So, at that point, it was going back to what I knew and knew I could do well and that was building race cars, working on ‘em and making ‘em go fast. When the opportunities to drive kind of dried up, it was kind of easy for me to transform back to doing something like that.”

IN THE LAST THREE YEARS YOU HAVE GONE FROM BRAUN RACING TO WINNING A NATIONWIDE TITLE AT PENSKE RACING TO BEING IN CONTENTION FOR THE CUP CHAMPIONSHIP. “Just looking at this year in itself, I haven’t really taken a lot of time to reflect on what we’ve been able to accomplish. Leading up to why I’m in this role I’m in now, it’s probably has to do with all my years in the Nationwide Series. It was 2006 when I started (as a crew chief) in the Nationwide Series and it was with a bunch of different teams. When I had the opportunity to come to Penske last year and work with Brad (Keselowski), I felt like the reason I got the phone call and had that opportunity was all the hard work and time I had put in prior to that. So, to be able to have that opportunity last year was like, well, finally it’s paid off and I’ve got the right situation where we had great funding, a great driver, great team and I was able to maybe show a little more of what I was capable of. Being able to win all the races we did and win the championship was a great accomplishment and the hard work finally had paid off. That opened up the door to have the opportunity to move up to the Cup series, not that I didn’t like winning all those races last year and winning the championship. I could have gone back and done that again this year and continue to build on that, but I felt like I had accomplished a lot of what I wanted to accomplish in the Nationwide Series. To move to the Cup series, I felt like it had to be the right situation. I felt like the relationship that Brad and I built over the 2010 season and all the relationships here at Penske and their belief in what I could do; I thought it was a good fit and a great opportunity to do move into the role. I’ve always felt like I’ve worked with teams that maybe hadn’t had a lot of success, so it gave me the opportunity to go in there and build something and show what I was capable of doing. Obviously, this wasn’t the 2 team, but the 12 team which transformed to the 2. (Last year’s No. 2 team moved over to the 22 team with Kurt Busch while the No. 12 team of Sam Hornish Jr. from the previous year became the No. 2 team). It was a chance for me to bring in some new guys, some guys from the Nationwide Series and try to get Brad up to the level of competition where we all felt like he could run. Definitely a slow start to the season, but as we moved to the middle part of the season we started to show that we were capable and that we felt like we belonged in the series.”

THERE IS A LOT OF TRUST BETWEEN YOU AND BRAD WITH THE DECISIONS YOU MAKE DURING A RACE. HOW DO YOU BUILD THAT LEVEL OF TRUST? “Well, obviously, we’ve only worked together for two years now. Leading up to us getting together and working together last year, I think we looked at what one another was able to accomplish, what we’ve done to get to this point and there was some sort of level of respect and trust just going into it. And then, as we got into the season last year and started having success, I think that you just kind of start to build even more (respect). It’s just like anything else, like momentum, you start to really trust and believe and know that each of us are doing the right things. That’s why we’re successful. So when you have that, I think it makes it easier to get through the times when you struggle. As competitive as this sport is, especially at the Cup level, there’s going to be days when you struggle, when you’re off and weeks and months as it was for us at the beginning of the season. At the beginning of the season, we knew it was going to take time and it was definitely a big transition for me. But I think all that trust and belief in one another and our hard work got us through that part of the season, kept us focused and not pointing fingers at one another, putting the blame on anybody. We knew as a team we could do it and we continued to work hard and Brad never gave up. We continued to work and get him race cars where we could be competitive. Now, it’s at the point where I feel like we both are confident we’re capable of doing it. We’ve showed it and if we’re having a bad race, we’re off or just making the calls, we believe in one another. At the end of the day, there’s some sort of risk when you make calls on Sunday. Sometimes they go your way, sometimes they don’t. I feel like we’re smart and have done a good job that we’re probably up here of the calls that went good and the ones that went bad are down here. I think as a team we do a great job. We try to communicate. That’s something that Brad’s really good at is being involved in what’s going on and understanding how the race is playing out. We make decisions; we talk about ‘em. Some of it might have been prior to the start of the race, so when we’re making calls, we’ve already discussed a lot of this and we know what each of us is thinking even though we might not say it on the radio. A lot of that stuff is probably behind the scenes that the people listening in don’t know what we’ve already discussed. It just helps having that communication and making the good decisions.”

COMMENT ON THE UPCOMING RACES AT MARTINSVILLE, TALLADEGA AND PHOENIX. DO YOU CLASSIFY ALL OF THEM AS “WILD CARD” RACES? “Well I think its (Phoenix) going to be a tough race just because it’s new to everybody. I don’t know if I look at it as a wild card. I guess you could label it as a wild card. To me, Talladega and Martinsville are races where so many things out of your control can happen. But as I look at Phoenix, I guess it’s a wild card from the standpoint it is new to everyone; everyone has to figure it out. But still at the end of the day the successful teams, the teams that do their homework, are still going to be the team that runs well, in my opinion. It was an interesting test. It wasn’t the greatest test from our standpoint. We know we’ve got a lot of work to do. The track surface was definitely a one-groove track at the test. It will be interesting to see how that aspect of it changes because the way it tested, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a great race. Unfortunately, it was something that needed to be done. As teams and as NASCAR, we always seem to work through and are able to put on a good race.”

IT SEEMS LIKE IN MOST RACES THERE COMES A POINT WHERE A CREW CHIEF HAS TO DO SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT TO KEEP TRACK POSITION AND STAY IN CONTENTION. HOW DO YOU SORT THROUGH ALL THE DATA AND INFORMATION TO MAKE THAT DECISION? “It’s definitely tough, from a lot of aspects. With it being new to me, I guess I didn’t really have any expectations or any habits of how to call a race. Obviously, you always hear Chad (Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson) say he doesn’t know how to call a race anymore with all the success that they’ve had with the 48 car. But I think it’s definitely changed a lot this year. Being on the outside in the past watching the races and how they played out, some of that has to do with the tires. Some of the tracks we’ve gone to, we’re just not seeing a lot of speed fall off in some of the tires. Obviously, those types of races change how you call along with all the fuel mileage stuff; that was a big part of our first win at Kansas. My approach to racing has never been real conservative. So to me, I probably make more risky calls than maybe some other guys might. But that’s just my style. Some people look at some calls and might think they’re pretty risky. At the same time, there’s definitely some sort of data or facts behind the decisions we make. I think you see, the majority of the time they pay off for us. If we were making risky calls and it was going 50-50, then you could call it just a shot in the dark. My engineers do a great job of giving me information from the fuel mileage stuff to just tracking weather. There have been some races where we’ve used some weather in our strategy. It’s definitely a team effort up on top of the box with the information. That’s the part of the race weekend. I really enjoy calling the race and all the strategy stuff. I feel like that’s an area where, as a team, we continue to get our race cars better each week. We probably haven’t had a lot of dominate race cars yet. I feel like we’re still building and trying to continue to advance our setups and get to where we can have weekends like the 48 did this weekend, where he was kind of the class of the field. We haven’t had that a lot, but the part of the equation that we have done well at was making those pit calls or strategy. There are so many aspects of winning these Cup races and winning the championship other than all-out speed. Now, at the end of the day, when you have race cars that are really fast, it makes calling the race easier for sure. You don’t have to have fast race cars every week to be successful. That’s the one thing that I’ve seen this season and it pays the same amount of points whether you had a dominate car or not. When you win the race, it doesn’t really matter how you got there. We’ll continue to build our team and build better race cars and then, I think the rest of it will even be easier for us.”

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE AS A CREW CHIEF IN THE CUP SERIES? “For me personally, it’s probably been learning to rely on a lot of resources and people around me. It’s so competitive, there are so many aspects of it at this level. In the past, I’ve always been hands-on with every part of the race car, race team and pit crew. As you get to this level, it’s so competitive you have to learn to build trust in the guys around you and believe that they’ve giving you the right information, the things you need to make decisions. You just physically can’t do everything. There are not enough hours in the day and you just drain yourself if you try to do all aspects of what it takes to be successful. So just making that transition and building trust in the guys around me and continuing to try to find good guys, A+ guys to put on to this team to be able to compete with the 48 car has been a challenge.”

WITH YOUR BACKGROUND AS A HANDS-ON GUY, IS IT STRANGE TO NOT BE CRAWLING UNDER A CAR ALL THE TIME? “Absolutely, and that’s part of what I say of having to have trust in the people around you. I enjoy working on the race cars. Don’t get me wrong, I still do. I’m not turning the wrenches every day, but I like to spend time with the guys whether they’re on the pull-down rig or out here on the set-up plate. I still know what’s going on, know the nuts and bolts of my race car. I think that’s what’s helped me be successful, even this year, just knowing my race cars and knowing what’s on ‘em.”

FROM THIS POINT OF THE SEASON MOVING FORWARD, WHAT IS A SUCCESSFUL CHASE? “You know coming into the season, I’ve never been super-big on setting goals from the standpoint of I want to have this many top fives or top 10s and win this many races. The way I’ve approached it is ‘I told some reporters in January that I felt like realistically we could be in the Chase’. I felt like that was realistic. The thing for us was to go to Daytona and from Daytona on continue to see improvement in our race team, from the speed in our cars to how well the guys worked together to our pit crew, see Brad improve, myself and the decisions I make in calling races and decisions over the weekend. And if we can continue to do that each and every week, I would consider that being successful. I didn’t really set any numbers. Have I surprised myself and probably some others around the company with what we actually have accomplished, I’d be lying if I said no because honestly, I didn’t picture us winning three races this year and being this far into the Chase and having a shot at it. Probably wasn’t looking that far into the future. It was more of what do we have to do today to be better day-by-day. As we’ve taken that approach, we’ve seen the results and are seeing that we have a shot to win the championship.”

THE NASCAR SEASON IS INCREDIBLY LONG. HOW HAVE YOU FOUND WAYS AS THE LEADER OF THE TEAM TO FIND A BALANCE, NOT BURN GUYS OUT AND KEEP THEM FRESH ALL SEASON? “There’s one thing most people that know me and as people get to know me, is that I’m a pretty quiet guy. I don’t say a whole lot. I’m not a big cheerleader or one of those types of guys, but I try to surround myself with people that don’t need that. I try to get guys that are racers, that have the same passion that I do. There’s always guys with different personalities that need a pat on the back every now and them and that’s fine, that’s understandable. I feel like the group of guys we have are really strong. They’re all racers. They’ve all worked hard to get to this point and they’re pretty strong in that they don’t need someone telling ‘em what they need to do or when they need to take a break. Now, obviously, we try to give everybody the time they deserve and try not to get ‘em burned out. From that side of it, it goes back to everybody back here at the shop. They do a great job preparing our race cars and getting them in shape where the road guys don’t have to be here every day. They get their time to relax and be fresh for the weekend. I think, knock on wood, we’ve done a great job with great, reliable cars all year. And that’s part of being in the Chase as well as not having too many DNFs or any issues. Everybody is just kind of taking it race by race and just really, to be honest with you, just haven’t seem to have felt a lot of pressure. I try to go in there each weekend and approach it like we have to get to this point and continue to try to push forward with trying to make our race cars better. We’re bringing a brand new race car this weekend (to Charlotte). Some may think that’s crazy; why would you roll out a new car that you haven’t worked with this year when you’re in the Chase. That’s always been my approach, probably take more risks than some, but it always seems to work for me. I’m just not very conservative from that aspect. If I feel like there’s something better out there, I’m not afraid to put it on my race car.”

IT SEEMS LIKE YOU’RE HAVING FUN. “Absolutely, it’s definitely been a lot of fun. It seems like, in a lot of ways, we struggled bad at the beginning of the year trying to figure it all out. Now, I feel like we can breathe each week and be smarter about what we’re doing. That just continues to snowball and we’re finding ourselves with even more success.”

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Series NASCAR-CUP
Tags dodge, keselowski, penske, wolfe