We’ve been on a tremendous run lately, and one of the benefits of being a driver is that you get roughly 92 to 98 percent of the credit for being successful when things are going well. In reality, I probably have the inverse of that in terms of our success and what I’m responsible for.
Our crew chief, Paul Wolfe, is the guy actually doing the majority of the work for the No. 2 team.
You might think his biggest contribution is race strategy since the only time Paul surfaces is during in-race television interviews. You’d be dead wrong. He’s a leader for the team, and makes sure everyone is working in tune. He makes all of the decisions on the car, which means constantly studying data, making adjustments, and communicating with me and everyone on the team.
It sounds cliché, but Paul’s responsibilities really are 24/7/365.
Because he’s responsible for so much, it’s extremely important that our relationship is strong, and that we’re on the same page. Right now, all of us — Paul, the crew and I — are dialed in as well as we’ve ever been. Maybe even better.
But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, we almost never were.
When I made the transition to Penske Racing in 2009, we decided to start a Nationwide program, and we needed a crew chief. An up-and-comer named Paul Wolfe had caught my eye, and I wanted to talk to him.
Paul had crewed for a few different drivers, and none of them had done that well. But if you know what you’re looking at, you know when you’re watching a good car with an underperforming driver. For one, a good car has raw speed during qualifying, and all of Paul’s cars were fast. And a lot of times, you could see that Paul’s drivers were simply missing their marks.
So I called him up. We agreed to meet a week later after a race at Michigan.
In between, we were both running a race on the small track at Indianapolis. And as it happened, Paul’s driver at the time and I weren’t getting along particularly well. In several different races, every time I tried to pass him, he would cut me off. He’d caused two or three wrecks that I’d gotten into earlier in the year.
At the Indy race, he turned down on me on the track yet again. I’d had it. I spun him out, and he wrecked.
A few days later, Paul and I had our scheduled meeting in Michigan. He sat down without saying a word, and it was pretty obvious that he wasn’t happy I’d wrecked his driver. So I figured I’d break the ice.
“Hey man,” I said. “I like what you do. I’m sorry you got torn up last week, but I just couldn’t put up with that anymore. It’s just part of the deal.”
Paul just stared back at me, silent. I kept going.
“I’m going to start this new Nationwide team with Roger Penske,” I said, “and I’m really looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a great deal. I would really like if you would consider crew chiefing for me.”
He looked me dead in the eye.
“Nope,” he said. “Not interested. I’ve already got a job.” Then he stood up, and walked out.
That was the start of my relationship with Paul Wolfe.
Many of you may not know that Paul was a driver before he was a crew chief. He actually ran a few Nationwide races in 2004-05, right around the time I was getting my start in the Truck Series. He ran fairly competitively — a few good races, a few bad races, kind of what you’d expect from a rookie. Then the sponsor of his team decided it wanted to back more established drivers, and Paul lost his ride.
So he never really got a chance to prove himself and see if he could make it.
But Paul loved the industry, and wanted to stay part of it. He went through a really difficult transition. The thing about Paul is that he has a never give up, never surrender attitude. He started working his way up as a crew chief.
“Sorry,” he said. “That’s not what I want to do. We’re going to do things my way.” We had zero chemistry. Zero. “Holy crap,” I thought, “What have I gotten myself into? This is never going to work.”
A couple months after Paul walked out on me in Michigan, we still hadn’t found a crew chief for the Nationwide team. One day, I was having a discussion with the Penske management team, and they said, “We’d really like to talk to this Paul Wolfe guy. We think he does a really good job.”
I laughed out loud.
“Good luck with that,” I said. I explained that we’d met already, and that it couldn’t have gone much worse.
“We have a meeting with him next week,” they said.
Right after that meeting, Paul was hired.
Preparation began right away for our 2010 Nationwide team. It was brand new, and starting a new team is a huge challenge for anyone, let alone a crew chief who’s never been with an organization before. There are all sorts of politics and personalities that one has to deal with.
One of those personalities was me.
I had run pretty well in 2009. We had won four races, and I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted out of the car and the team. So in January of 2010, I walked into his office with my notes.
“Here’s what I’m thinking,” I said. “Here’s what I’ve been doing. Here’s what I think I need to be successful.” I ran through my setup ideas.
He looked me right in the eye, just like he had in Michigan.
“Sorry,” he said. “That’s not what I want to do. We’re going to do things my way.”
We had zero chemistry. Zero.
“Holy crap,” I thought, “What have I gotten myself into? This is never going to work.”
Not long after that, the Penske team started building the cars the way Paul wanted them. I started looking at them, and my first thought was, “These are pretty nice. They’re a little different from what I’ve had before. We’ll see. One step at a time.”
One of our first tests was in Orlando at a track at Disney World. (Yep, that Disney World.) It’s used mostly for testing and ride alongs, and it’s great to test at during the winter months because it’s warm there.
So we went there to test our new car.
It wasn’t just fast. It was crazy fast. Absolutely crazy fast.
Sometimes when you test, you run speeds and figure you got a false read. Sometimes, it’s for good. A lot of times, it’s for bad. I left the test thinking, “All right, what’s dialed up on this thing?”
A few weeks later, we ran our first two races. And guess what?
Boom. The cars were crazy fast.
It’s hard to explain what happened next, but basically, Paul and I had instant chemistry. We went from zero to 100 almost overnight. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever dealt with in my career or been part of as a person.
A lot of crew chiefs today are engineers. Paul doesn’t have a degree in engineering because he doesn’t need one. He’s learned everything he needs to know without years of schooling, and he applies that knowledge with a logical approach. Because quite often — not just in racing but in any form of engineering — the numbers don’t always add up to what you see in front of you in the real world and what your gut is telling you.
That’s not an easy position to be in. To be able to make the right call, make the right tweaks and give your team that slight advantage — particularly in the Cup series — can be the difference between first and 10th.
That is Paul’s strength.
At the start of 2010, when he wasn’t listening to my ideas, my feeling was, “Fine, prove your way is better.”
Boy, did he ever.
Others may define confidence differently, and that’s okay. But where Paul and I were concerned, it was about having confidence in each other. It was about knowing what the other person was thinking. It was about getting to a point where I understood why he wanted to do things his way.
The fact that Paul had been a driver turned out to be one of his best assets. It brought another dimension of respect for each other. When I talk about what I’m experiencing behind the wheel, he can relate and respond. That’s huge.
We just flew from there, and won the 2010 Nationwide championship. Given how we finished in the Cup Series that same season, it was obvious Paul was the right guy to take over that job.
The rest is history.
Paul and I have a come a long way since that first meeting in Michigan. Today, he’s one of my closest friends. I’ve discovered — and I mean this in the best possible way — that he’s the quintessential workaholic. He thinks about racing more than I do, which is kind of crazy. Racing is a sport of details and preparation, and he pays attention to both more than anyone I’ve ever met.
Given where we started, it’s not hard to imagine that our communication has improved quite a bit. But we really complement each other well. I have, let’s say, a more outgoing personality. Paul is understated. He’s not going to give me a pep rally speech. He always undersells and over delivers. He makes it a point not to set us up for disappointment, and I feel the same way. I don’t ever want to disappoint him.
We’ve also developed great trust in each other, and for a driver and crew chief, that’s everything. I remember back in 2012, at the fall race in Martinsville, we held the points lead, but we were struggling. Jimmie Johnson was breathing down our necks. Practice wasn’t very good, and qualifying was awful. It was turning into a disaster of a weekend really quick.
After we finished the final practice session, Paul had his head down — the way you do when you’ve tried everything, and nothing seems to work. I walked up to him and said, “Hey man, the numbers might not look real good, but I’m telling you, we’re going to be okay. Don’t feel too bad about it”
Earlier in our career together, Paul probably would have blown that off and been like, “We’re changing this, this, this, and this.” But he didn’t, and it wasn’t just because I’d told him not to worry. Underlying everything, we had a belief that whatever it was we needed to do, we would figure it out.
Jimmie went on to win the race, but we ran fifth or sixth. We stayed within striking distance. Two races later, we had the points lead back, and ended up winning the championship.
Last year, quite honestly, humbled both of us quite a bit. It was a wakeup call. It also drove home how important it was for us to communicate effectively, and to regain the kind of chemistry we’d had before.
A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP
My dad suffered a serious heart ailment in 2003, right before I started driving.
Before he got sick, he had an incredible work ethic and skill set. After he got sick, he wasn’t able to be the same way. So I never got the opportunity to work with my dad when he was in his prime.
That’s always been really hard for me.
My dad was a really good racer, and as hard a worker as I’ve ever met. He dropped out of high school, but he taught himself complex mathematics to run his racing teams. His capabilities were far beyond his education. He fought for every penny he could get to spend on a race car. He had ideas that were way ahead of his time, and far beyond his financial means. And he still found ways to win races.
I’ve never said as much publicly, but I think part of the reason that Paul and I have developed the chemistry that we have is because — in so many ways — he reminds me of my father.
In their own ways, they’re both self-made. They’re similar personalities. They’re both very quiet. When they get upset, you know they’re upset because it usually takes a lot. They don’t really show emotion. They’re very hard working and committed. They love the details of racing, and work on the details all of the time.
Being around my dad made me a harder worker than I ever thought I could be. He demanded that from you. Paul’s the same way. He’s shown me that there is more left if you just keep digging.
As a boy, I dreamed of racing with my dad on my team, and being able to work with my family. In a way, working with Paul has given me a second chance to make good on that dream. What we’re building is something special. I appreciate what we’ve accomplished so far. I like what we’re doing now. And I’m excited for what’s to come.