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November 29, 2022

Crew chief Paul Wolfe savors the moment as a two-time Cup champion

Crew chief Paul Wolfe and Joey Logano celebrate their first Cup Series championship together at Phoenix Raceway
Meg Oliphant
Getty Images

Paul Wolfe’s partnership with Joey Logano nearly began many years earlier, back when the young crew chief was a budding talent atop the pit box looking for a steady NASCAR gig, and back when the teenaged driver was most closely connected with the “Sliced Bread” nickname as a next-big-thing prospect.

“It’s funny how this works out, what a small world it is,” Wolfe says, retelling the story of that crossroads moment now, just weeks removed from winning a Cup Series championship with Logano and with both now as veterans at the top of the stock-car world.

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Wolfe was still finding his way after his driving days had ended, earning a reputation for extracting the most performance from equipment that wasn’t quite elite. By 2009, the team that employed him was headed for a shutdown at season’s end, and two solid offers in the Xfinity Series were in the works.

Crew chief Paul Wolfe atop the Team Penske hauler for Daytona 500 practice in 2020
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Brad Keselowski wanted him to be part of his move to Team Penske and a full-time Xfinity campaign. Joe Gibbs Racing had interest in pairing him with Logano, then a Cup Series rookie who still ran a majority of the Xfinity events.

After some initial resistance, Wolfe went with the less-established Xfinity program. He’s been under Roger Penske’s employ ever since.

“I just saw it as an opportunity to build something, rather than just taking over,” Wolfe said. “I don’t know, the thought of building something from nothing was more exciting to me. And that’s really what was the deciding factor for me to go to work at Penske.”

Years later, the 45-year-old Wolfe will be feted with Logano at Champion’s Week festivities in Nashville. It’s the second Cup Series championship for both, and Wolfe has joined the short list of crew chiefs to win premier-series titles with multiple drivers.

It’s been a life’s journey to arrive at this point, with a decade in between those crowning achievements. “Building something” has been more than a deciding factor. For Wolfe, it’s been a mantra.

Starting to grow

“I’ve been in racing for a long time and if you want something, you have to work hard for it. Eventually it’s going to pay off for us.” – Paul Wolfe, Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal, Oct. 5, 2001

Paul Wolfe knew he wanted to be involved with racing early on. Growing up in Milford, New York, Wolfe watched his father, Charlie, compete in Modifieds as a regular at tracks in his home state – Fonda, Utica-Rome, Five Mile Point. He started in go-karts just after turning 10 years old, and soon began traveling in that youth circuit before moving up the ladder.

His younger brother, Steve, took a similar path, but with more of a focus on high school sports than in karting circles. His athleticism later led him to over-the-wall duty, serving as a tire changer for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 8 among other teams. Today, he’s in an assembly manager’s role at 23XI Racing.

Wolfe’s ambitions led him to move closer to the NASCAR hub in North Carolina in 1996, when he connected with Coy and J.D. Gibbs in their Late Model days. That opened the door to some driving, some building on the fabrication side, and a wealth of foundational learning. All the while, Wolfe had a career safeguard in place.

“I took my New York state tests to be a certified welder. We can work on bridges and do that kind of work,” Wolfe says, recalling his six months of training on a vocational school scholarship in Ohio. “That was kind of like my backup plan if the NASCAR stuff didn’t work out, because I could make a living as a welder. So I kind of had that with me as I went down south.”

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His association with the Gibbs organization led to opportunities in the Busch North Series, which evolved into the ARCA Menards Series East. Wolfe drove partial schedules in five seasons (2000-04), netting two pole positions and a best finish of second place on four occasions.

Paul Wolfe during his driving days in this promotional picture before the 2005 season
Getty Images

Wolfe later drove part-time in the Xfinity Series, making 16 starts with team owners Tommy Baldwin, Ray Evernham and FitzBradshaw Racing. His time with the Baldwin operation was as part of the team’s Hungry Drivers Program, an audition among several prospects seeking full-time rides, but those part-time seats ran dry by the time 2005 came to a close.

“There just really wasn’t anything for me,” Wolfe says. “I didn’t have any sponsors or anything like that. So I was like well, I got into the sport, learned it as a mechanic, doing it as a fabricator, I can pretty much do anything, and it was like, ‘Well, I’ve kind of got to make a living here.’ “

Wolfe found steady work with a handful of mid-level teams, starting as a set-up specialist in a shop-based position. But the lure of being at the track was still strong, and a crew chief role was the natural progression.

The list of drivers Wolfe worked with the next few years was extensive – Mike Skinner, Denny Hamlin, Robby Gordon, Scott Lagasse Jr., Jason Leffler among others – but he had no wins to show for the strong showings. Two full-time opportunities were open for 2010, and when Penske representatives pressed him, it seemed like a logical step.

“Oh, man,” Wolfe recalled thinking. “I probably should go talk to these guys.”

Making a bond

“Paul’s very confident in what he does with a race car, and Brad believes in everything he does. That’s a pair to watch in this sport for a long time.” – crew chief Steve Addington, AP, Aug. 16, 2012

One of the most enduring driver-crew chief pairings in recent NASCAR history wasn’t exactly love at first sight. Brad Keselowski had invited Wolfe to meet with him in his motor coach at Michigan International Speedway in August 2009, hoping to forge a partnership for the next season.

Wolfe recalls Keselowski not being able to say precisely where he was headed at the time, but there was already some hesitation concerning a potential clash in personalities. Keselowski had started to establish himself as an up-and-comer with a winning pedigree, but his brash reputation came in sharp contrast to Wolfe’s calm, reserved demeanor.

“Honestly, I wasn’t a big Brad fan, to be honest with you,” Wolfe says. “At that time, I don’t really like this guy, you know, I like where I’m at. I pretty much said, ‘I appreciate taking the time to meet but I think at this point, I’m all set,’ and just basically just told him I didn’t want to do it. And that was that.”

Penske officials, however, had taken their own separate liking to Wolfe, something they later broached with Keselowski.

“I guess Brad told them, ‘Don’t even bother. I’ve already met with him. He turned me down,’ ” Wolfe said.

“I kind of laughed and said, ‘Good luck,’ ” Keselowski told the AP in 2012. “They said, ‘we’ve been talking to him the last two weeks and he wants to do it.'”

The change of heart stemmed at least partly from Wolfe’s uncertain future with the CJM Racing team, which was nearing an offseason closure. The chance to build anew with an organization that was entrenched and expanding in the Cup Series was there.

Crew chief Paul Wolfe and Brad Keselowski talk in the garage at Dover Motor Speedway in 2013
Tom Pennington | Getty Images

What emerged was one of the most dynamic driver-crew chief debuts in national-series history. Keselowski clinched what was then called the Nationwide Series championship with two races left on the schedule, racking up six wins and amassing 26 top-five finishes in 35 starts. He completed all but one of the 6,489 possible laps and led 1,147 of those (17.7 percent). His average finish for the season was a spellbinding 5.2.

“I guess when you’ve had to work with not much for so long, we became efficient and got the most I could out of what I had,” Wolfe said. “And then you go to Penske, and there’s so many resources and people and technology that I was like, I don’t want to say it made it easier, but I just used what I learned through my struggles and then took what they had, and we were able to build something great.”

The growth continued once Wolfe joined Keselowski in the Cup Series in 2011. The year before, Keselowski had some initial difficulty adjusting to the move up to NASCAR’s top division as a rookie, but gained ground after partnering again with Wolfe. A three-win campaign set the stage for a memorable championship march the next year, delivering Roger Penske his first Cup Series title in 2012.

Victory Lane visits were regular events for the two, who posted at least one win in each of their nine seasons together. But the push for a second title for the No. 2 Ford team came no closer than Keselowski’s Championship 4 appearance in 2017.

“We were both pretty young and didn’t know any better. I feel that’s the essence since I’ve won my second championship, really,” Wolfe said. “At that time, I honestly didn’t know no better. I didn’t realize how hard it really is, and maybe that was why we had so much success is because we just we didn’t know any better. We were just working hard and going racing and having fun. And then you look, it’s taken 10 more years to get another one.

“This is harder than you think it is, and it takes so many pieces of the puzzle to get them together right, to really have a legitimate shot at racing for a championship.”

Crew chief Paul Wolfe and Joey Logano chat before the start of the 2022 Cup Series Playoffs at Darlington Raceway
Logan Riely | Getty Images

Moving the pieces

“There’s nothing sinister here, it was just time for change.” – Roger Penske, AP, Jan. 27, 2020

The offseason bomb dropped just after the new year in 2020, altering the driver-crew chief composition at Team Penske in a dramatic three-team swap. Keselowski and Wolfe had won an organization-best three races the year before, but an early elimination in the playoffs and performance lapses across the board prompted the Captain to shake up the status quo.

“It just felt like it got stagnant. Yeah, we were still winning races but I felt like we could be better than that, and I’m assuming that’s what Roger felt as well,” Wolfe says now. “I don’t know the conversations between the drivers and Roger, where they were on all that, but when the idea was kind of presented to me, I was open to talk about it, for sure. It was no disrespect to anyone or Brad. We accomplished a lot together, had a lot of success together, but it just felt like we weren’t going anywhere from there. It was just, we had our struggles. I don’t know, it felt like a fresh start, maybe what all of us needed.”

Logano was just more than one year removed from his first Cup Series championship with crew chief Todd Gordon in 2018, but the same degree of success was elusive the next year. He and Wolfe weren’t total strangers when they first joined forces, but the veteran crew chief had to adjust his approach to a different driving style.

The dividends were seemingly instant to kick off 2020, as Logano and Wolfe won two of the first four Cup Series races, prevailing at Las Vegas then Phoenix. Days later, the sport shut down after the COVID-19 outbreak, and their progress had to shift again when racing returned without practice and qualifying. Wolfe had to learn on the fly that what worked with Keselowski did not with Logano.

“As we got going here, trying to understand the differences, like, once Joey puts on that helmet, all’s he is focusing on is driving that race car,” Wolfe said. “I don’t know if that’s just what he was used to with Todd or whatever it was, but there were many moments where there were what I would call tougher decisions strategy-wise and Joey was nowhere to be had for a conversation about how we should go about this. It was like, ‘Just tell me what to do.’

“I’d worked with Brad for 10 years, and we had spreadsheets for as the race is playing out. Brad and I always kind of worked through the strategy side together in adjusting on the car, and this is what I think I need. Early on with Joey, there was none of that, so that was like a big adjustment for me. I’m like, ‘This is not what I’m used to, but I’m going to have to figure this out or this isn’t going to work.’ “

Wolfe also had to mesh with a driver who brimmed with confidence when everything clicked. “I’m probably just the opposite, pretty matter-of-fact,” said Wolfe, who opted not to rein Logano in when he was riding his highest this season.

Crew chief Paul Wolfe and Joey Logano celebrate their win in the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in LA.
Sean Gardner | Getty Images

Instead, Wolfe stood by his driver when he declared himself the favorite ahead of this year’s playoffs, then doubled down on the notion once teams arrived for the season finale earlier this month. Two additional factors allowed Wolfe to roll with Logano’s vibe – a successful organizational test at Homestead-Miami Speedway just weeks earlier, plus a Championship 4-clinching win at Las Vegas that allowed the No. 22 team more time to prepare for the title event.

“I knew going to Phoenix, with our past history there with Joey that if we had speed in our car, I had no doubt in my mind that he was going to get the job done,” Wolfe said. “Never once did it cross my mind whether or not we’re gonna have to worry about where Joey was. He was going around telling everyone how he was the favorite and he was going to get it done. He was confident. I just wanted to give him the best opportunity I could. And as a team, we did that, and he showed how good he is. … That was a pretty damn good weekend for us. I don’t know how you could ask for it to be it be much better.”

Logano thrived in his self-assurance, but he also fed off Wolfe’s determination. The race-day preparations for the Phoenix finale began with meetings that Wolfe arranged before the sun had crested the desert hillsides, and Logano appreciated the lengths that his crew chief would go to for the team’s overall goals.

“I’m just happy for him. Paul wants it bad,” Logano said after the team’s champagne-soaked celebration. “Like I said, the way he was preparing, what he was doing, he put a lot on him over the last few weeks. I don’t know how he handles his pressure. Everyone kind of has their own way of what they do. And I’m able to shut off when I go home. Paul is a lot quieter person than I am. If I get him to smile or cheer a little bit, I feel like I’ve really done something. I feel like he holds a lot of things inside, where I vent everything.

“It’s been, I think, a tough few weeks for Paul and his family. Like I said, it’s hard. And the commitment that he put in the last couple weeks, I know his family sacrificed dad time and husband time to do this. And so obviously I greatly appreciate that, and that’s why I’m so happy for him, because it takes a lot to do it, and hey, here we are.”

At age 45, Wolfe says the sacrifices that Logano mentions have made him think about what’s next “more now than ever.” His 8-year-old son, Caden, has followed his father’s path to go-kart racing, and his daughter, Halle, is now 5.

Greg Ives recently stepped down from a weekly crew chief role with Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team, opting for a position within the organization’s competition department that required less travel. Ives’ son Parker regularly competes on the same go-kart circuits as Wolfe’s son.

“Thinking back to those years and how I got started, I just remember those were some of the best times I had with my dad just traveling all over the country racing go-karts, just doing those things as a family and what that taught me,” Wolfe said. “You know, I see those years passing by pretty quick here, now that my son’s already 8. It’s a tough balance because this job has allowed me to do these things.”

Whatever direction he follows, Wolfe says he hopes to remain active in the sport – either in his current role or something new. Wolfe said his contract with Team Penske runs through the end of next season, providing him the better part of a year to make a long-term decision.

In the shorter reach, helping Logano become the first repeat champion since Jimmie Johnson’s record run of five consecutive titles ended in 2010 is the next building block on the list.

“So I’m not going anywhere next year, that’s for sure. I’m gonna take another run at it,” Wolfe says. “But how many years past that? I don’t know yet. I’ve got to put more thought into that. But just proud of what we’ve been able to do at Penske and like I said, now to do it with Joey is really pretty cool.”

Crew chief Paul Wolfe and Joey Logano celebrate their first Cup Series championship together at Phoenix Raceway
Meg Oliphant | Getty Images