Wolfe, Keselowski have plenty to prove

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Paul Wolfe lowered his head from behind his desk in his purposely nondescript office at Penske Racing, trying to figure out a tactful way to say what he thought about Brad Keselowski when they first met in 2009 to discuss joining forces.

There was no easy way to put it.

"To be honest with you, I didn't like him a whole lot," said the crew chief for Keselowski's unbelievably hot Penske Racing Sprint Cup team. "I didn't."

He really, really didn't.

Keselowski, then in the No. 88 Nationwide Series car at JR Motorsports, had wrecked cars that Wolfe worked hard to build more than once. There was one run-in in particular at Memphis, where Wolfe felt he had a shot to put the underdog CJM Racing team into Victory Lane, tainting the 34-year-old New York native's opinion of the driver considered by many at the time a punk.

"He dumped [us]," Wolfe recalled. "To be honest, I really didn't care for the guy."

Wolfe loves Keselowski now, and for many of the same reasons he despised him just a few years ago. As a former driver who six years ago would have done anything to be in Keselowski's position, Wolfe understands what it takes to be at the top of the profession.

And right now, Keselowski is on top with two wins in the past four races -- three on the season -- taking him from Chase long shot to one of the favorites.

"I knew he could drive," Wolfe said with a sheepish grin on his face. "I saw Brad in that 88 car win races when I didn't feel like he had the best race car. I was like, 'That's the kind of guy I want to work for.'

"There's days when you don't have the best race car and you want a driver that can make up for it, and vice versa."

But enough about Keselowski. This is about the man behind the scenes, the one few outside of NASCAR's inner circle knew much about three months ago when the No. 2 team was 25th in points, 14 spots behind where it is now.

This is about a man who five years from now we could be talking about in the same high esteem as Chad Knaus, who has helped Jimmie Johnson to five consecutive championships.

This is about a man who is, unlike his driver, not hard to like.

This is about Wolfe, who went from an unpaid welder for the Late Model team of future Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs to a driver who could have been a potential star with a little money and sponsorship to one of the top young crew chiefs in the garage.

"Paul is a smart guy," said Keselowski, 11th in points heading into Sunday night's race at Atlanta. "He's good and we're on the same wavelength. So much of this sport is about that.

"So without that, I don't think I could be successful and couldn't be where I'm at here as we stand."

Rags to riches

Wolfe was 19 when he knocked on the door at Gibbs' Late Model shop. He had a welding degree from a small school in Ohio to prove he could build frames and little money in his bank account.

"Give me a chance," Wolf asked Gibbs.

Gibbs did, but for the first six months Wolfe worked for free and lived with friends. He finally started getting $200 to $300 a week when Gibbs went to the Busch North Series in 1997, but there wasn't much job security.

"It was a disaster," Wolfe said of Gibbs' season.

The two still joke about how bad Gibbs was as a driver and how smart it was for both to eventually give up driving.

"At least part of where he is now he owes to me," Gibbs said. "I tore up more stuff and gave him more headaches than you can imagine, so he's well trained."

I'm probably not the most optimistic guy out there. I doubt myself a little more than I should. Maybe that's what makes me successful. I feel like every day I wake up I've got to go prove myself again.

-- Paul Wolfe

Gibbs also was instrumental in getting Wolfe behind the wheel. In 40 starts in NASCAR's K&N Pro Series East from 2000 to 2004, Wolfe had two poles, 19 top-10s and nine top-5s.

That led to him driving in the Nationwide Series, first for Tommy Baldwin and then Ray Evernham, who was trying to establish a program for his young Dodge organization. But six races into the 2005 season, after consecutive finishes of 16th and 10th, Evernham turned to Cup drivers Kasey Kahne and Jeremy Mayfield because Wolfe wasn't attracting sponsors.

"In fairness to him, he was a pretty decent driver," Evernham said.

But like Evernham, Kenny Francis, Baldwin and others who went on to become successful crew chiefs, there came a time when it was apparent Wolfe's future wasn't in driving.

"The reality is, if he had gotten some breaks driving a car, he could still be driving today," Gibbs said. "He was really, really good behind the wheel."

But Wolfe was even better under the hood of the car.

"Everything that kid always touched was like immaculate," Baldwin said. "It was unbelievable when he worked on cars, how detailed they were. That's why he is successful."

Wolfe is successful because he was smart enough to realize that.

"At the end of 2005, there wasn't any successful rides for me out there," he said. "I could have done start-and-park-type teams, but [to feed] my want to win races and be successful … those opportunities weren't there.

"Could I have done it if I had gotten the opportunity? It's hard to say. But I knew I could be the best at this position with time."

Thanks, but no thanks, BK

Wolfe wasn't sure what Keselowski wanted in August 2009 when he summoned him to his motor coach at Michigan.

Apparently, Keselowski knew what he wanted. Having observed Wolfe the past three years, first working as a crew chief for FitzBradshaw, then Braun Racing and then CJM Racing supported by JGR, he saw a raw talent looking to make a name for himself just like he was.

"I told him I'm going to move on, do this deal with Penske, that there's this Nationwide program, I'm excited about it, I like what I see out of you watching you from a distance, I think you should interview for the job and I think you'd be the leading candidate," Keselowski recalled.

Again, Wolfe didn't care for Keselowski at the time. But he was polite about it and said, "I appreciate the offer and opportunity, but I am all set."

He was set until funding at CJM fell apart. So when Penske Racing officials, unaware of Keselowski's contact, revisited Wolfe in October, he was more open to the idea.

Wolfe also had an offer to go to JGR and run the No. 20 Nationwide program, with Dave Rogers moving up to Kyle Busch's Cup program.

"That was a tough decision," Wolfe said. "I loved working for Gibbs and everything they stood for."

But he chose Penske Racing for a reason you have to admire -- for the opportunity to build a Nationwide program from scratch. He wanted to put his stamp on something instead of just adding to one of the most successful programs in the garage, in much the same manner Keselowski did when he chose Penske Racing over staying under the Hendrick Motorsports umbrella.

"I felt with the right funding and the right driver I could win races," Wolfe said.

He did, leading Keselowski to six wins and the first NASCAR championship for Penske Racing in 2010. He was rewarded by being named Keselowski's crew chief on the Cup level this season.

"Like Brad, I can look back and say maybe this was the better move for me," Wolfe said.

Like oil and water

Wolfe lowered his head again, laughing at being asked when he first began to like Keselowski.

"Whew!" he said.

Wolfe likes joking about it now. But at the time he made the move to Penske he realized "Brad was the kind of guy you wanted on your side."

In many ways Wolfe and Keselowski are complete opposites. Wolfe is quiet and shy, not one to openly express his opinion unless asked for it. His office is a reflection of that. There are no personal or family pictures on the gray walls, nothing to let you know anything about the man who works in it.

Keselowski is outspoken and charismatic, not afraid to say whatever is on his mind. That was evident again a week ago when he wrote on Twitter that Danica Patrick had opened a "Pandora's box" for all women in racing by posing half-naked in several magazines to promote her career.

"I'm like, 'Gosh darn it, Brad! Can you keep your mouth shut on anything?'" Wolfe said with a laugh.

But Wolfe understands that Keselowski's brashness is part of what makes him great, just like his own quiet attention to detail helps make him great as a crew chief.

"Sometimes we need people in the sport that are honest and give you an opinion," Wolfe said. "A lot of times, you have drivers who say what they think everybody wants to hear. It's not the truth a lot of the time.

"Brad will tell you the truth. Sometimes it upsets people. At the end of the day, when he gets in that race car, he's proven he belongs at this level."

Wolfe has proved he belongs, as well. He has proved that with a little perseverance and patience good things happen to good people who work hard, that first impressions about people aren't always the best.

"I'm probably not the most optimistic guy out there," Wolfe admitted. "I doubt myself a little more than I should. Maybe that's what makes me successful. I feel like every day I wake up I've got to go prove myself again."

So does Keselowski, another reason they like each other so much now.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.