Brad Keselowski is thrilled to have his team back intact.
With 14 races remaining before NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, crew chief Paul Wolfe is back at the track and ready to guide the No. 2 Penske Racing team back into the hunt.
Wolfe, his car chief Jerry Kelley, team engineer Brian Wilson and competition director Travis Geisler, served a two-points race suspension at Darlington and Charlotte (along with the All-Star event) for unapproved suspension parts and components discovered on their Ford at Texas Motor Speedway on April 13.
“For me personally it was tough,” Wolfe said. “It was tougher to deal with than what I thought it would be. I am a hands-on kind of guy, and for me to be able to watch the car in practice and see how it runs around other cars is important for me, visually, to see that and make decisions on what changes to make.
“Everyone that stepped up and helped out did a great job and did all that we could ask but, obviously, it is just not the same.”
Certainly, Wolfe is being humble. Although veteran racer/crew chief Kevin Buskirk did an admirable job filling in, there’s no way to duplicate the chemistry that Wolfe and Keselowski have developed over the last three seasons.
Keselowski, who qualified eighth on Friday — the best among the Fords — was thrilled to have the band back together.
“This is a team,” Keselowski said. "It is a lot more than just me and a lot more than Paul. It is about everybody on it. Paul and I are like the quarterback and the head coach but it takes more than the quarterback and head coach and there was more than our head coach sitting out.
“We lost our car chief and our head engineer too. Getting everyone back adds to the comfort level. I think we are going to have a strong few weeks, I really do.”
As the team’s "coach" it was difficult to watch the Brew Crew struggle. The two races Wolfe missed, Keselowski finished 32nd and 36th — the latter resulting in the team’s first DNF (did not finish) since the 2012 Daytona 500.
But the greatest hit Keselowski took since the team was busted in prerace inspection at Texas was dropping from second place in the standings after the first six races to 10th after the Coca-Cola 600.
“We have lost a lot of points over the last month and it started a little earlier than before I was gone,” Wolfe said. “We had some issues at Richmond with some engine issues and lost points there. At Darlington we felt like we had a competitive car but we had issues there with a loose wheel and getting caught up in a wreck. It seems like as a team we are going through one of those slumps right now.
“We aren’t hitting the panic button by any means and Brad has kept a positive attitude through it all. Everyone on this team knows what they are doing. We have won races. We have won a championship. This weekend we are looking forward to buckling down here and getting back on track.”
It was at Dover last fall that the No. 2 Penske Racing team got “back on track” in its title run with a second Chase win. The victory allowed the crew to regain the points lead from Jimmie Johnson, the driver with the most wins (seven) at the Monster Mile. Prior to Keselowski’s Dover victory, his best finish in five previous starts was 12th.
But over the last three weeks, Keselowski never felt “panicked” during Wolfe’s absence. Although the team struggled the last two weeks at Charlotte, Keselowski says it has had opportunities to win since the suspension pieces were first discovered.
“We ran terrible obviously last week, but at Darlington I thought we were a car capable of winning and circumstances outside of those people that were missing held us back,” Keselowski said. “Same thing at the All-Star race (when his crankshaft failed after two laps). I don’t think those guys got a fair shake, I think we were fairly competitive and it just didn’t pan out. It is a lot more comfort having everyone back but I was very proud of the effort from everyone that stepped up.”
Despite his absence from the track, Wolfe still “guided a lot of the changes” and the team’s decisions. And while he wouldn’t have changed a thing, Wolfe acknowledges his input wasn’t the same as it is when he is at the track. But after strategizing with his driver, Wolfe believes that Keselowski remains “strong and in a good place right now.
“Obviously, he seemed a little frustrated last weekend with that car and rightfully so. It wasn’t where it needed to be. He is in a good spot and is motivated to come out here. We won here in the Chase and we have some confidence that we should be close with our car here this weekend.”
Does Keselowski believe his good luck charm is back?
“Hopefully,” Keselowski said. “We have burned through a lot of bad luck the last few weeks with parts failures, untimely cautions and loose wheels. That is just part of racing.”
3: Times Martin Truex Jr. has started on the front row for a Cup race at Dover.
5: Toyotas will start in the top six for Sunday’s FedEx 400.
19: The age of the youngest pole winner in the Camping World Truck Series — Darrell Wallace Jr.
Clint Bowyer, 34, was grateful to have 5-Hour Energy to support him after his birthday celebration went longer than expected on Thursday.
“It was one of those deals that wasn’t expected,” Bowyer said on Friday. “I got home from (testing at) VIR (Virginia International Raceway) and (girlfriend) Lorra (Podsiadlo) said, ‘Get in the shower. We have to meet everyone for dinner.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, maaan.’ Then I got ready to leave for dinner and all my friends were like, ‘We were going to take you out for your birthday,’ then I was really, ‘Oh, manning.’ Then when I woke up with a massive headache I was even more, ‘Oh, manning.’"
"Oh, boy, I needed some 5-Hour to get me through yesterday — through my birthday. It’s just another day in the book. Obviously, when you start getting to your middle 30s you don’t want to celebrate those near as much as you used to in your middle 20s. They hurt too damn bad."