There was a time when Paul Wolfe, the latest pit-road wizard in NASCAR, could have envisioned himself making the Sprint Cup driver championship speech Brad Keselowski will make tonight to cap the season-ending awards banquet.
Instead, Wolfe will share the head table with Keselowski and talk from the champion crew chief’s perspective.
Things might have gone in the other direction for Wolfe, a native of Milford, NY, who drove south in search of work on the NASCAR circuit and found himself in that most central of workplaces – behind the wheel of a race car.
Wolfe drove two Nationwide races in 2003 and three more in 2004 before signing on with Ray Evernham Motorsports to drive one of the team’s Dodges on the circuit in 2005.
That brought Wolfe to a crossroads. He did OK, scoring a 10th-place finish at Nashville Superspeedway (in a race won by Clint Bowyer), but, after 11 races, it was clear he needed to pursue another path.
That led him to crew-chief work, to a championship partnership with Keselowski on the Nationwide tour in 2010 and, ultimately, to the place of honor he’ll share with the rest of the Penske Racing team tonight.
Wolfe clearly has reached a career high at the age of 35, but does regret linger from his decision to sit on the war wagon instead of inside the car?
“Initially, it was disappointing, absolutely,” he said. “I felt like I could keep doing it, but I’m very satisfied with my position in the sport now. There’s never a day when I’m on top of the box saying, ‘Dang, I wish that was me driving the car.’ That never crosses my mind. I enjoy calling the race and that part of the competition. I’m very satisfied with where I’m at.”
Wolfe said he didn’t see the driving deal working out long-term.
“I probably ran out of opportunities,” he said. “When I made the transition to the Nationwide Series, I never really had much success. Obviously, without much success or backing behind you, it’s hard to continue on.
“There came a point when I had to make a living doing something. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have worked and built and learned these race cars for some years before I got to drive. It gave me something to fall back on.”
But the driving part of his life also has helped him better understand Keselowski’s feedback at race tracks, and just the fact that he sat in race cars at high speed and in a competition mode is a plus in his workday.
“Probably the experience of racing and making laps at a majority of the tracks we race at has helped,” he said. “Understanding the tracks and little things about the characteristics of the tracks – that helps a little bit. Obviously, the tracks have been paved and changed, and the cars themselves are quite a bit different. But they still have the same sensations and same feels.”
The hiring, planning and decisions overseen by Wolfe helped Keselowski and team owner Roger Penske win their first Cup titles and put Wolfe’s name among the elite on pit road. Now, much, much more will be expected as they go into 2013.
“I feel like we do well at focusing on our race team, what we need to do, trying to improve each and every week and every year,” Wolfe said. “I think we’ve shown that over the last few years. I’m excited to be the champion going into next year. I think it gives everyone confidence on our team.
“Some guys are young to the Cup series, including myself and our driver. I think it gives us all confidence that we can compete at the highest level and win championships.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.