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For No. 2 team, Kansas was 'turning point'

April 21, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Sitting 25th in points, victory at 1.5-mile track catapulted him into Chase

When crew chief Paul Wolfe brought Penske Racing's No. 2 team to Kansas Speedway last spring, he didn't do so thinking they could win the race. There was hope and optimism, to be sure, but for a program still trying to dig itself out of a deep points hole, the more immediate goal was stringing together solid finishes and trying to build from there.

"We were still thinking, we need to start putting together top-15 finishes, because leading up to that we just weren't doing it," Wolfe said. "We had some decent cars at places, but we just didn't get the results. It got to the point where we were like, are we trying too hard? Let's try to finish top-15 a few weeks and get rolling. It was almost like that was our mindset -- let's just get a solid run."

"I think it was definitely Kansas that was the turning point. Whether they call it momentum or confidence in the team, and there is a lot to be said for that -- guys believing in each other and thinking you can do it."

--PAUL WOLFE

They did more than that, as driver Brad Keselowski stretched his fuel run to the end and recorded a victory that transformed a driver and a team from an also-ran into a championship contender at NASCAR's highest level. Although Keselowski had broken through with a third-place run earlier in the spring at Darlington and won the pole for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, it was the victory at Kansas -- which stamped him as a leading contender for a wild card berth, at the very least -- where the light really flipped on for the No. 2 team, and they've kept it burning ever since.

"I think it was definitely Kansas that was the turning point," Wolfe said. "Whether they call it momentum or confidence in the team, and there is a lot to be said for that -- guys believing in each other and thinking you can do it. You're almost able to find another level somehow."

They certainly did. Kansas' first Sprint Cup event came later in the spring last season -- it's been moved up in the schedule this year to accommodate a resurfacing project that's expected to be completed in time for the fall race -- so Keselowski had already endured a roller coaster of a 2011 campaign by the time he reached the Sunflower State 13 weeks into the schedule. The No. 2 team had bottomed out at 28th in points following a poor finish at Richmond, and Keselowski was well outside the Chase conversation until he began to wedge his way back in later in the spring.

In retrospect, the poor start wasn't entirely a surprise. Wolfe, who was a driver at NASCAR's national level before he became a crew chief, had just moved up from the Nationwide Series, replacing Jay Guy as signal-caller on the No. 2 Sprint Cup car. Keselowski was coming off a debut campaign with Penske where he had gone without a top-five finish, and because of a sponsor change was being thrust into Penske's flagship, Miller Lite-backed vehicle. The other car at Penske, at the time piloted by Kurt Busch, had fallen off at the end of the previous season.

"Obviously, there were a lot of unknowns with myself and some of the guys on my team, and Brad hadn't had any success at the Cup level at that point, either," Wolfe said. "I think all of us were just searching for where we needed to be. The No. 22 [team] at the end of 2010, they really struggled. Obviously, they made the Chase, but they were struggling, so it wasn't like we had a great place to start from. As a company at Penske Racing, we had to find where we needed to be."

It took them a while. Wolfe said improving the No. 2 program was a week-to-week process, and at the beginning the Chase was nowhere near the front of their minds. Every race there were changes, building on things that did work, tweaking things that didn't. Over time the cars improved and better results followed, but it wasn't until that breakthrough victory at Kansas the team's mindset truly changed. One week, it was all a matter of improvement. The next, there was the sudden realization they had a shot at the championship. Keselowski would go on to win twice more in 2012, and stay in the title hunt until only a few weeks remained in the season.

"I think once we got that win, it just kind of gives you a little confidence and gets you believing in the things you're doing and the decisions you're making," Wolfe said. "You're doing the right things -- just keep working hard, and we'll get the results."

The driver, though, needed a bit more convincing. Although Keselowski said he came to Kansas last spring believing he could win the race -- "I believe I can win every week. You have to to be a good race car driver," he said -- it wasn't until his second victory of the season, at Pocono in August and with a busted foot suffered in a testing accident, that the driver of the No. 2 car began to believe that his program had been truly transformed.

"I would say it took all the way to Pocono," he said. "I felt that we were going in the right direction. We made changes before that I felt good about. I'm the type of guy that wants to see it, not just believe it. I want to see it. Pocono kind of gave me personally that belief."

It continues into this season, when Keselowski comes back to Kansas with a victory from Bristol already under his belt, and already in position for at least a wild card berth to the Chase. His 15th-place standing in Sprint Cup points is due in large part to getting caught up in a crash at Daytona, and suffering fuel-pump failures at Las Vegas and Texas. Beyond that, he believes his team has been fast enough to rank among the best.

"If we simply wouldn't have had those two gremlins at Vegas and Texas, I feel like we'd be second or third in points," Keselowski said. "I don't feel bad about our efforts. We just have to get rid of those gremlins. We're a team that has the ability to win races and run for a championship."

That's where the bar has been set for the No. 2 team. And so much of it goes back to last spring in Kansas City, and the race that changed everything for Keselowski and his crew chief.

"As a team, we're still growing," Wolfe said. "I feel like we still continue to get smarter each week with our approach to the weekend. Now we've kind of got somewhat of a foundation of what we need to do, what we need to work on, what it takes to run up front. So your approach changes from that standpoint. If you've done it once or twice, you understand what you need to look for. I guess that's kind of where we're at now."

Watch highlights of Brad Keselowski from the 2012 season: