Less than two hours after Brad Keselowski had delivered the 2012 Sprint Cup championship for the No. 2 Dodge team at Roger Penske Racing, Keselowski became both nostalgic and forward-thinking.
It was a glance at crew chief Paul Wolfe that triggered the dual thought process.
"I can't believe how everything just came together over the last -- what's it been, three years? Has it been three years that we've been together?" Keselowski mused. "Three years Paul and I have been together. We're two for three, Paul. I was just thinking about that. What is that, a .666 average? I don't want to round up there, but that's pretty good.
"And you know what? I feel like the best is yet to come. I really do."
That's the kick in the pants for the rest of the Sprint Cup garage. Keselowski and Wolfe very well might be the next Jimmie Johnson-Chad Knaus NASCAR power couple.
Keselowski is only 28 years old, Wolfe 35. They first teamed together in 2010 in the Nationwide Series, when Wolfe led Keselowski to six wins, five poles and a record 26 top-five finishes in 35 starts. That was enough to earn venerable Roger Penske the first NASCAR championship in his long career as a car owner, but it merely whetted their appetites and set the stage for the something much larger that came this year on the Cup stage.
In 2011, their first full year together in NASCAR's premier series, Wolfe helped Keselowski to a fifth-place finish in points. They won three races and a pole along the way.
Then came this magical season. Keselowski sealed the championship with a respectable, workmanlike 15th-place finish in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He really won it earlier in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, when he reached Victory Lane at Chicago and Dover, then followed with a second-place finish at Texas and a sixth at Phoenix while Jimmie Johnson, the only other title contender left in the running, encountered disaster.
Keselowski ended the season with five wins overall, but it was the 15th-place finish at Homestead that said perhaps the most about his close relationship with Wolfe.
Johnson already had encountered trouble in the pits, and then a mechanical issue virtually ensured the title would be Keselowski's if the Blue Deuce finished the race. But that wasn't going to be enough for Keselowski, or Wolfe.
The No. 2 Dodge was running in 16th as the laps wound down, when Keselowski came over the team radio and insisted to Wolfe that they needed "one more spot." Wolfe knew exactly what Keselowski was thinking because he was thinking the same thing. They had come into the race knowing that as long as they finished 15th or better, they would win the championship no matter what Johnson did.
So they wanted to finish 15th or better, even though that no longer was a requirement to secure the title.
"It's funny, but when we pitted and Brad came over the radio and asked what position we were in, I told my engineers up on the pit box, 'You know what he's thinking? He's thinking he wants to finish 15th because at that point it didn't matter what happened to the 48 [of Johnson],'" Wolfe said. "That just shows the dedication and what this means to him. Sure enough, it wasn't but a few laps later that he came over the radio and said that.
"We just think a lot alike, and I knew that's what he would be thinking at that point."
Great minds, as they say, think alike.
Setting sights on history
The No. 48 Chevrolet team of Johnson and crew chief Knaus remain the benchmark for Keselowski and Wolfe. Johnson and Knaus won five consecutive titles from 2006 through 2010 and likely aren't going away anytime soon.
"Just to be able to battle the 48 like we did -- and we both won races in the Chase -- was special," Wolfe said. "We both had some races where we didn't run well, but I think when you look at what they've been able to accomplish over the last whatever, 10 years say, they're definitely the best at this game. I think that makes it even more special for me to know that we went head-to-head with those guys all the way down to the last race."
And now, for this brief offseason at least, Keselowski and Wolfe can say they're the best. They've both said in the past that what first drew them to each other -- well, other than Wolfe being out of work at the time after earlier turning the brash driver down -- was that both felt the other had a history of getting more out of his race cars than virtually anyone else in NASCAR.
"When Brad and I first got together, part of the reason I was excited about working with Brad was because I had seen him win races in cars that I thought weren't as good as maybe cars I was putting on the race track at the time," Wolfe said. "As a crew chief or a team, that's always what you want. You want a guy that you know can win races when you might not have the best race car out there.
"I'm the kind of guy who takes it one day at a time and tries to be better each and every day at what I do. I never really looked at it from the standpoint of 'I want to go win a championship with him.' It was more like, 'I want to go win races and continue to grow as a team.' We've done that each and every week and every year, and now we're rewarded with a Cup championship."
It's not likely to be their last together.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
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