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Pinch-hitters on pit box help Keselowski to third

March 02, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Pinch-hitters on pit box help Keselowski to third
Polesitter has strong run in Phoenix without regular crew chief

RELATED: Full race results | Series standings

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Saturday night, Greg Erwin ordered a room-service cheeseburger and watched videos of both races from Phoenix International Raceway last season. Sunday afternoon, the cram session paid off in the form of a third-place finish for Brad Keselowski.

With regular crew chief Paul Wolfe back in North Carolina attending to his wife and newborn son, the 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion relied on a couple of pinch-hitters on the 1-mile desert oval. Engineer Brian Wilson oversaw car adjustments while Erwin handled strategy, returning to the top of a Team Penske pit box after nearly winning the Nationwide Series championship as crew chief for Sam Hornish Jr. last year.

"Honestly, stepping into a situation like that, I didn’t know what to expect," Erwin said in the garage area after the race. "Other than listening to Brad during the Nationwide races, and listening to him sometime over the radio, I didn’t know what the dynamic on top of the box was like. You don’t get to see or feel any of that when you're not there. And those guys treated me like I've been part of the team forever. That helps."

Erwin is certainly no stranger to the position -- he won five Sprint Cup events as Greg Biffle's crew chief at Roush Fenway Racing, and won a race en route to a second-place points finish with Hornish on the Nationwide circuit last season. When Penske shut that team down, Erwin became director for the organization's Nationwide efforts, a position that doesn't entail calling races on a weekly basis.

So when Wolfe informed Keselowski after the first of two practices Saturday that he was heading home a week earlier than anticipated for the impending birth of his son -- Caden Paul Wolfe, who was delivered early Sunday morning, wasn't expected until Las Vegas week -- a crash course was in order. Erwin reviewed both of the No. 2 car's Phoenix races from 2013 on Saturday night, and then after the drivers' meeting Sunday held a powwow involving Keselowski, the program's two engineers, and Wolfe via telephone to review which adjustments typically work best for the man behind the wheel.

"We talked about some of the adjustments (Wolfe) generally feels are slam-dunks for Brad," Erwin said. "He said, 'These adjustments are generally the most successful, adjusting for Brad and the way he drives the car.' We laid a plan out … and we just stepped through it."

Erwin said he had no contact with Wolfe during the race. The No. 2 team called an audible on its final pit stop and took four tires instead of two, a move that perhaps allowed Keselowski to eventually overtake teammate Joey Logano for third place. On the heels of a third-place finish in the Daytona 500, Keselowski headed to Las Vegas second in Sprint Cup points, six behind leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"They did a great job," Keselowski said of his fill-ins on the box. "Still had two more spots to go. All things considered, I thought they did really well. I was very proud of the effort."

Keselowski said he texted with Wolfe a few times Sunday, and had one from the crew chief waiting on him when he got out of the car. Wolfe's phone, meanwhile, "is blowing up," Erwin said of the new father. Phoenix marked the second such pinch-hit role for Erwin, who worked with Logano's team at Darlington and Charlotte last season when regular crew chief Todd Gordon was serving a suspension associated with a NASCAR penalty.

Erwin, who said he's been dealing with a torn rotator cuff and has an MRI scheduled for Monday afternoon, knew something was up when Penske competition director Travis Geisler told him to hold off on any potential surgery until after Wolfe's baby was born. Sunday the No. 2 team had no visible hiccups on pit road, and over the radio the communication between driver and his fill-ins atop the box appeared seamless.

Even so, there was no catching winner Kevin Harvick, who led 224 laps and dominated the race.

"We were close. I could see it the whole race," Keselowski said. "I think some of the long-run stuff, we were just as good as anybody, then the short-run stuff we were just kind of OK. It was a good run either way, something to be proud of and hang our hat on. Just know we have to be a little bit better, and move from here."

Erwin said every adjustment the No. 2 team made seemed a little behind.

"We didn't quite go far enough," he said. "The track went this way, we adjusted, the track went again, we adjusted. We probably needed to get out ahead of it. But at the end of the day, that was just a joy working with those guys."

That much was evident by the smile worn by a former crew chief, who clearly missed being atop the pit box.

"You always miss the good days," Erwin said, "and the good days on the West Coast are good because of the long flight home."

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