- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 15, 2012

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) - When Paul Wolfe decided to give NASCAR a try, he made sure he had a backup plan.

“I became a certified welder,” Wolfe said. “I never really thought driving would ever provide me a chance. The opportunity to work on cars was more realistic. I wasn’t really thinking about driving when I got into it.”

It’s good to be a realist.

Since moving from baseball country in upstate New York _ Wolfe grew up in Milford, a stone’s throw from Cooperstown _ to North Carolina in 1996 to give stock car racing a try, Wolfe has put in long hours working for Joe Gibbs, Tommy Baldwin, and Ray Evernham, among others, gaining valuable hands-on experience.

Now, he’s crew chief of the No. 2 Dodge driven by Brad Keselowski for Penske Racing in the Sprint Cup series, and a force in the NASCAR garage.

“I tried to learn from everybody,” said Wolfe, who did drive in the Camping World East and Nationwide Series from 2000-05, notching eight top-fives but no wins before concentrating on becoming a crew chief. “You can never stop learning in this sport. It’s always changing.”

After also working for Fitz Racing and CJM Racing, Wolfe signed in November 2009 with Penske, which was starting a new Nationwide team for Keselowski.

Paul was taking less and doing a lot more with it at other race teams before he got the opportunity to go to a team like Penske Racing, where they’ve got good equipment,” said Steve Addington, crew chief for reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart and a close friend of Wolfe. “I think he was showing everybody that he kind of knew what he was doing. He’s got a good, core group that’s been with him through the steps. He’s keeping that group together, and that’s the smart thing to do. You know they’ve got your back. That’s the cool part of having team chemistry from the bottom to the top.”

That chemistry has been magical.

During the 2010 Nationwide season, Keselowski scored six wins, five poles and a series-record 26 top-five finishes on the way to a 445-point victory in the final point standings behind the wheel of Wolfe-prepared cars, giving Roger Penske his first NASCAR championship.

Paul’s very confident in what he does with a race car, and Brad believes in everything he does,” Addington said. “That’s a pair to watch in this sport for a long time.”

Wolfe moved up to the Sprint Cup series last year and Keselowski, despite a broken foot suffered in testing at midseason, posted three victories to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, NASCAR’s version of a postseason.

“We had success right away,” said Wolfe, now 35, whose dad raced modifieds and put him in a go-kart at age 11. “From there we continued to build our relationship and understand each other more and more. We’re still learning. Brad pushes me to be better.”

Great drivers always have a secret weapon that most of their competitors can only marvel at _ a great crew chief.

Richard Petty won 198 of his NASCAR-record 200 races and all seven of his Cup championships (tied with Dale Earnhardt for the most all-time) with cousin Dale Inman, and both have been inducted into the NASCAR the Hall of Fame; Earnhardt won four of his titles with Kirk Shelmerdine; four-time champion Jeff Gordon won three titles in four years with Evernham; and Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson won a record five straight titles with crew chief Chad Knaus before Stewart’s triumph last year.

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