Win Gives Keselowski, Wolfe Room To Be Aggressive
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on March 10, 2014 | 2:31 P.M. EST
Paul Wolfe and Brad Keselowski celebrate their win in Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas. (Photo: Getty Images)
It makes one wonder what Paul Wolfe and Brad Keselowski will do next. With Sunday’s victory at Las Vegas all but clinching a Chase spot, Wolfe and Keselowski have more room to take chances in the next 23 Sprint Cup races.
As if the competition needed to face that. Wolfe is one of the more aggressive crew chiefs on pit road - helping Keselowski win the 2012 championship - and now has more freedom to gamble.
"The thing that's made the team successful over the last few years is being aggressive and we're going to be aggressive this year," Wolfe said.
Crew chiefs have become mad scientists on pit road, concocting various race strategies. They’ve had to do so with more cars capable of winning, fewer cautions and track position critical. Sometimes, the gambles work, as they did for Keselowski; and sometimes they don’t, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. running out of fuel a half-lap from victory.
Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, could make that gamble Sunday - even though fuel calculations showed Earnhardt would be short - because Earnhardt is all but set in the Chase with his Daytona 500 victory.
Wolfe joins Letarte and Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, in that class. That could make things more difficult for other crew chiefs.
Wolfe’s pit calls helped Keselowski win the 2012 Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway and at Dover.
When others changed only two tires during the first stop at Chicagoland, Wolfe had his crew change four tires. Although the stop dropped Keselowski back in the lineup, he climbed to fifth before the next pit sequence. His crew changed only two tires that time while other teams changed four tires. That allowed Keselowski to take the lead. He stayed at or near the front the rest of the way.
At Dover, fuel conservation allowed Keselowski to win after Kyle Busch, who led 302 of the 400 laps, had to pit late.
Not all gambles worked. Keselowski ran out of fuel leading before the final pit stop at Charlotte during that Chase. Instead of a chance to win, Keselowski finished 11th that night. Wolfe was not deterred.
"It's important to be aggressive because that's what got us here and that's what is going to get us a championship," Wolfe said after that race. "It wouldn't be smart for us to change that now as we get down to the championship battle."
The gamble Keselowski’s team took Sunday came early in the race, when he stayed on the track while the rest of the field pitted during the first caution. A caution shortly before Keselowski was to have pitted helped him retain track position toward the front of the field.
"By no means would we have stayed out if we didn't feel like our car was good or that the tires would hold on," Wolfe said. "The biggest gamble there was just the fuel window."
It’s a gamble that’s easier to take. Cautions in the first three races of this season are down 24 percent from the same stretch in 2012. That means more green-flag pit cycles and the chance to dictate the race with pit calls.
The early-race gamble helped keep Keselowski near the front and put him in a position to take the win when Earnhardt’s engine burped less than a mile from the finish line, out of gas.
"The gamble didn't pay off ultimately, but we were able to run in the top five," Earnhardt said. "We weren't going to do that and, with the strategy we were on and everybody else was on, it was a good strategy and gave us a chance to win. We definitely wouldn't have taken that gamble had we not had the new points system, so we were able to really take advantage of that. Steve is already going for broke and he's having a fun time."
Sunday, it was Wolfe and Keselowski who had the most fun and that could make other crew chiefs miserable throughout this season.