WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — 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.
"Obviously, you can be the best driver in the world, and if you don't have a good crew chief and a good crew, you're not going to get it done," Knaus said. "Paul does a really good job."
Keselowski, whose rise in the sport has been impressive — he has eight top-fives this season, just three fewer than Johnson, who tops the Cup standings — knows he has something special.
"Racing is such a team sport that a crew chief plays the role almost more of a head coach and the driver more like a starting quarterback," Keselowski said. "I'm nothing without him calling the right plays, in a sense. He's the leader of the team who sets the direction ... for everything we do. His position is of extreme value and perhaps one of the most underrated in all of sports as it pertains to its difficulty.
"Certainly, Paul is a huge, huge component to my success. I don't think he gets the credit he deserves."
Knaus and Johnson have developed a chemistry that is rare in the sport. The Penske tandem doesn't seem far behind.
"The chemistry that we have as racers is something I'm very proud of, and it doesn't come along every day," Keselowski said. "It's like having a best friend. You don't just find a new best friend every day.
"I'm very lucky. I've been through a few, and Paul was the first one that I really felt connected to. I respected the majority of the crew chiefs I've had. It wasn't a respect issue. It was more of a, 'Could you carry a conversation with him? Could you be thinking the same thing without saying it?' Those type of things."
Intent on regaining whatever he might have lost last season, Johnson's No. 48 Chevy sits atop the points with four races remaining before the Chase begins at Chicagoland in mid-September. Keselowski is fifth after his stirring second-place finish to Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, and brimming with confidence as the series heads to his home state of Michigan.
"I think we have a lot of potential," Keselowski said. "There are some things we have to work on. The majority of the tracks in the Chase are mile-and-a-half-style tracks, intermediate tracks, and the 48 has shown to be heads and tails above everybody else as it pertains to speed on those tracks. That's something that we have to play a little bit of catch-up because speed is the foundation of the sport and the rest is by execution, strategy."