Friday, December 3, 2010

Penske hopes Wolfe, Keselowski pairing translates into Cup success

Nationwide Series champion Brad Keselowski, center, with crew chief Paul Wolfe, left, and team owner Roger Penske.

After his first full season with Penske Racing, Brad Keselowski delivered the organization its first NASCAR title, winning the 2010 Nationwide championship in impressive fashion. But his level of success in that series didn't carry over to Sprint Cup, where Keselowski finished the season 25th in the points standings.

With Keselowski taking over the reins of the legendary Blue Deuce for 2011, the pressure is on for the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge to perform on a competitive level, something Keselowski's No. 12 team lacked for much of this year. To aid Keselowski's performance in Cup, Penske is looking to its Nationwide program for the solution.

The organization announced Tuesday that Keselowski's championship-winning Nationwide crew chief, Paul Wolfe, will move up to replace Jay Guy on top of the No. 2 pit box for the 2011 season.

“It’s an honor to get the opportunity to be the crew chief of the Penske Racing No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge team,” Wolfe said in a team press release. “It’s been a fantastic 2010 season with Brad and the team and I’m excited about the challenge of moving up to the Cup Series next season and the opportunity to continue building on the legacy of the No. 2 car team with Brad behind the wheel.”

Together, Keselowski and Wolfe won six Nationwide races, five poles and even set a new series record - claiming 26 top-5 finishes, the most in a single season - in the No. 22 Dodge.

“I’m excited for Paul and I look forward to continuing the momentum and success we had this season in the Nationwide Series,” Keselowski said. “We just seemed to click right from the beginning and we look to bring that same magic to the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge team in 2011.”

The Penske organization also hopes the chemistry between Wolfe and Keselowski can transfer over to Sprint Cup, where Keselowski has been struggling. The 26-year-old driver has just two top 10s and one pole to show for his first full year in NASCAR's top level of racing. Where Keselowski completed all but one lap in the Nationwide Series this year, he recorded five DNFs for the 2010 Sprint Cup season.

One of his incomplete finishes came at Atlanta, where Keselowski was en route to a top-5 finish when Carl Edwards retaliated against him for an early-race incident, causing the No. 12 Dodge to go airborne. The image would come to define the limits of NASCAR's "boys, have at it" policy that was put into effect at the beginning of the year.

Keselowski received more notice for the spectacular Atlanta wreck than for his on-track performance in Cup this season, which will need to change when he steps behind the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. The expectations are high for the Nationwide champion to find success in one of the sport's most recognizable rides. In addition to now having a big-name sponsor, Keselowski has big shoes to fill, following past champions Rusty Wallace and teammate Kurt Busch in piloting the Blue Deuce.

The former No. 12 team may have found something in the last 10 weeks of the season, when Keselowski claimed his first Cup pole at New Hampshire as well as back-to-back 10th-place finishes at Martinsville and Talladega. Plus, two of Keselowski's Nationwide wins this year came in the new car, which has more in common with the Sprint Cup COT model and could work to Wolfe's advantage.

With the duo's stellar track record in Nationwide, perhaps Wolfe could be the missing ingredient Keselowski and his team need to find success in NASCAR's big league.

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