Sunday, Feb 05

Transcript: Paul Wolfe - Press Conference - Phoenix Raceway

THE MODERATOR: We are now joined by the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series championship crew chief, and that is Paul Wolfe.

Q. Paul, watching you on the pit box, you didn't immediately jump up or really react. It kind of looked like you were sitting there gathering yourself. What was going through your head? How did you just feel in that aftermath?

PAUL WOLFE: Probably a bit of relief, to be honest. Gosh, it's so hard to win these things. I told a few people this before the weekend, we knew we were prepared the best we could be. We had the speed when we unloaded, and it was just -- you get into this race and you just don't want to screw it up. There's so much work by a lot of people back at the shop and the guys on this team and our teammates. So much goes into it, and you just don't want to have a mistake during that race.

Trying to go through all of the scenarios with the strategy as the race is playing out, as we've seen that affect how some of these races play out at the end. My engineers do a great job of trying to give me the best information we can.

And when we had the lead there at the end with 30 to go, you're kind of playing those scenarios: What are we going to do if the caution comes out? How many laps to go? Two tires, four tires, stay out?

It's pretty stressful at the end. When we finally got the checkered flag there, I just took a minute. It was a bit of relief and just a great feeling.

Yeah, I'm obviously not a super emotional guy, as many of you that have followed me over the last 10 years, but it does mean a lot to me. Might not show it as much as others, but it's a pretty special day.

Q. Joey obviously came in very determined. He's been very on it with his comments about being the favorite, being determined, out for revenge. You spoke yesterday about how he's been on his A game and that it was going to be tough to beat him today. How much easier, or how much -- you mentioned a sigh of relief, does that make it for you knowing that you don't have to worry about your driver; he's already locked in, you can just focus on the car and the team?

PAUL WOLFE: It means a lot. That's a lot of what I saw out of Joey and his teammates when he joined us at Team Penske was that drive he had and the effort he put in over the years. You always know what you're going to get with him, and that's 100 percent focus and doing the best he's capable of.

Those are the kind of people you want to work with. You never doubt his work ethic and what he's putting into being the best he can be. That's what makes you want to -- motivates you to work hard.

I knew he was capable of winning this race and championship today, and just didn't want to let him down. We've got a great group of guys on our team and supporting us, and we were able to give him what he needed to do his job, and then we got the results we deserved.

Q. I know you certainly had the best car, Joey qualified on pole. If you were just going on demeanor and body language on Saturday, Joey was clearly the most confident. He was proclaiming himself the favorite. Him setting that tone, did that help you and the team all weekend?

PAUL WOLFE: Yeah, I feel like for sure when these playoffs started this season, he was on his A game, and he was focused and determined that we were going to win this championship.

And that's the way he would talk as he would come into the shop and when he was around the guys and the time we would spend together. There was no doubt in his mind that we were the favorite and we were going to get it done.

I think as a company, there was a lot of challenges starting the season with this new car and what all that meant. It was definitely an up-and-down year and a lot of growing pains, but I feel like we continued to learn and get better every week.

And I don't know if that's what gave him the confidence to believe in the team that, when we got to the playoffs, we were going to be as good as anyone and capable of giving him the cars he needed to go out there and contend.

Guys have done a great job. Like I said, throughout the playoffs I feel like we had the speed. I feel like the Homestead test was a good turning point for us as we needed to find a little bit to -- I felt like to the Chevrolets for sure and the Toyotas.

I think he was pretty motivated after that test there, and we went on to run really strong and then win Vegas, and that kind of gave him that last bit of confidence, I guess, to know that we were going to be able to come here to Phoenix and get the job done.

Q. This is your second championship; not many crew chiefs currently have two. When you won your first back in '12, it felt kind of like a beginning, like you were going to maybe win a bunch, but it's been 10 years. What's that like?

PAUL WOLFE: Yeah, a lot has happened in those 10 years for sure. A lot has changed. Different driver, totally different car. The racing is totally different in my eyes from what it was back then.

It's almost like that happened in my second year in Cup racing; it's almost like I didn't know better, didn't understand how difficult it really was to compete for a championship in this series with the best teams and drivers.

A lot has happened. I don't know that it still hasn't totally sank in yet what we've been able to do. I just go out there every week and try to do the best. Continued to try to build a team with the best people we can.

I've said this before, I'm not going to say I'm the smartest guy in the garage, but I like to put a lot of good people around me and make me good look, and we've definitely got that on this team and within our company. Just try to go out there and do the best I can and not make any mistakes.

Q. You had kind of alluded to it earlier, but Ford has kind of been third on the hierarchy from about the summer on. How do you go about making those gains? What are the biggest deficits that you guys had to overcome to be in this position to advance and get here?

PAUL WOLFE: Yeah, I mean, I think it's a steep learning curve this year with this car. It's something totally different than what we've obviously used in the past and with the whole underbody and the aero side of it, understanding some of the trade-offs of the mechanical setups versus aero, and a lot of the things we did in the past really don't work with this car.

Being open minded and continuing to have guys come up with different ideas, things to try and just being smart about every week trying to take something out of it and learn something, and then very limited opportunities to test and practice with a 20-minute practice session and very limited changes, it makes it really hard to try to advance and get better.

So when you have those opportunities, you really have to make sure you're prepared to get the most out of them. And that's where I feel like having a great group of guys on this team and within Team Penske, we're able to make the most of that.

It's obviously made the difference for us.

Q. When did the Phoenix preparation start, and how did winning early in that round to allow you to just focus on the car, how did that help you get better for this race?

PAUL WOLFE: Well, it started right after the win in Vegas. We all know that's kind of how it works with this system. Not that we -- we wanted to go run well at Homestead and Martinsville, but for me personally, I've always -- it takes all focus for me on what's ahead of me that week and making the most of that.

Not that we wanted to throw away those races, but I started focusing on Phoenix right after that win that next Monday and making sure we didn't miss anything.

How much of an advantage is that? I don't know. I don't know that you can quantify it. But I'd like to feel like I was prepared as I could be coming into this weekend. And with a lot of great support from our teammates and stuff coming here this weekend, we were able to unload very fast and then go through a lot of things we wanted to try to find a little bit more.

Thankful to everyone within the company there that was supportive of that and had the focus of getting another championship for the team.

Q. The fact that Roger has gotten an INDYCAR championship and a Cup Series championship in the same year meant a lot to him. What has it meant to deliver that to him?

PAUL WOLFE: Like I said earlier, I'm just glad I didn't screw it up. People always say what's it mean to -- like when we go to Indy, we know how important that is to Roger and the team and being able to win two championships, like I think it's great.

I feel the pressure every week, whether I'm racing at Bristol or Indy or trying to get a second championship for Team Penske.

I know it's very special, and it's exciting to be able to be a part of that, of getting both championships this season. But it's hard to say I've worked any differently than I would have if we weren't going for the second championship for Team Penske today.

But I know it means a lot, and it's exciting for everyone involved. It's tough to do and pretty neat at the same time.

Q. As methodical as your approach was, we watched through that second stage where fuel was really in question. Joey, as calm as he's been all weekend, that was kind of like the one moment where he got a little bit on edge. How close were you, and was there anything else behind the scenes that we might not have seen that gave you pause?

PAUL WOLFE: No, it's a good observation. I think he was a little on edge, as I was, as well. There were some moments I got pretty hard on my engineers, like we need to know what we've got to do here, guys.

The guys we were racing for the championship, looked like they got into save mode. Track position is big. The clean air is big. The 19 was kind of pressuring us. We had saved some. That was a tough moment.

It's hard balancing those moments of what to do and trying to give Joey all the information we could. Because I get it at times, he's out there and feels like he needs more information to do the best he can, and it's never super simple, obviously, or clear-cut, and we're trying to make the best decisions kind of heat of the moment.

That was a tough spot in the race, but we got through it. We got through it.

I guess we did as good as most at what we needed to accomplish and to get through that stage.

From there, I think the end of the race, from a strategy standpoint, once we took the lead there and you're counting down the laps, we've run 10, we've run 15, are we pitting if the caution comes out, are we doing two tires, those are the moments that I stressed about last night, and leading up to this race, is just like you don't want to screw up the strategy.

We've seen it play out plenty of times this season and over the years. That's why the best car doesn't always win is because those interesting times when a caution falls. You know your competitors; if they can't beat you on speed, they're likely going to try something on strategy, right. I've won plenty of races, we've won plenty of races that way. That's how we won Vegas to put us in this position, was taking the tires when no one else did.

You're kind of trying to do the best you can to make the right decisions if that happens. So that was probably the second -- that was probably the most stressful part of the race for me was those last 20, 30 laps, and fortunately we didn't get the caution and the tough call.

I think Ford has done a great job of trying to help us through the playoffs, and there's a lot of guys -- Rodney and I have a great relationship and friends, and he's helped me through the playoffs, and we try to talk a lot and be better as one Ford team.

I was texting him throughout the race, like what are you guys thinking? What would you do? So being in open communication with the other Ford teams I think was good. Maybe it makes those decisions a little easier if you do get the caution, just understanding where those guys are at and stuff.

So I've got to thank those guys, as well, for that support and communication and talk.

There's a lot of smart people in the garage, and just like I said, try to be open minded and listen to what everyone has to say.

Q. (No microphone.)

PAUL WOLFE: Yeah, I mean, we have that relationship. Rodney and I have what I would consider a pretty good relationship. We try to help each other when we can, bounce ideas off of each other.

You know, I have thoughts, but everyone -- all the other crew chiefs might think something different, so I always try to, like, all right, what were some other guys thinking about; am I thinking the right way; what's going to be the right call. It's good to have another perspective.

So yeah, there's guys in the garage you can trust and there's guys you can't. I think Rodney and I have a great relationship, and I appreciate that.

Q. You mentioned how crucial track position and clean air is at Phoenix specifically. I'm curious what went into the decision to kind of like hold off on pitting, I think it was inside of 60 to go during those green flag stops, just knowing how crucial track position is when Christopher, I believe, pit beforehand?

PAUL WOLFE: Yeah, so those scenarios, we try to build the gap as much as we can leading up to those green flag cycles that you know you're going to get. Short pitting or being the first guy to pit road, the downside of that is if a caution comes out, right, then you're trapped.

So when you're kind of the lead guy, you always want to try to build that gap and stay out as long as you can. We didn't have -- we weren't trying to jump anyone. We just needed to kind of maintain those guys. When you're running where they were, it was like, okay, here's our opportunity to try to short pit them a little bit, gain some track position, maybe jump them.

So we just kind of monitor. Our plan is you kind of run as long as we can until they peel off, and then you manage how many seconds did we have over those guys when the cycle started. And that kind of tells us, okay, we've got two, three laps from when they pit, if the pit stops go clean, and that's kind of what we monitored.

So once those guys started peeling off, we knew within the next lap or two we needed to come down so they didn't jump us.

As we've said all along, you knew the Championship 4 drivers, maybe they didn't have as much speed as us in practice, in qualifying, but when it comes down to it, they find a way to rise to another level. Ross was there at the end, and the 20 was, as well. Obviously the 9 had his issues. So you couldn't count them out. You had to kind of see where they were at. We just kind of played off of when they pitted to when we were going to come in.

Q. Pit stops were a difference today, right? Some guys had slow pit stops, and like Bell and stuff. So you go party, you go have fun, way to go, guys, rings, here you go, but to maintain that edge going into next year, obviously you have to keep the training and stuff. How hard is it going to be to keep that edge for that pit crew to maintain the level of where they're at now?

PAUL WOLFE: Well, it's tough. It's no different than us working on the cars. We've put as much emphasis on pit road and the pit crew as we do in the car because we see how important that is. There's already things that we've talked about that we know we need to change up or look at to be better next year.

Yeah, that will continue to evolve, as the car will. We saw issues on pit road today. We had a hiccup, as well. That's kind of how we lost the lead there was just -- it doesn't take much. Fortunately the guys were pretty solid the rest of the day, though, and we were able to get that back.

But yeah, that's something that will continue to evolve. For these tire changers and all positions really, it's just so much different than what they've done in the past. We've got to continue to focus on that because it's a big part.

Q. How important was winning the pole position in this race, not because it's just the championship race but also it gave you that No. 1 pit box which turned out to be a big factor in winning the championship today?

PAUL WOLFE: Yeah, I think it's a big part. I think it's -- the pit stall is obviously really good. It's worth a car length or so on equal stops. I think just the confidence it gives the driver, you know, knowing that we had the fastest car.

Then, like I said, being able to kind of set the pace, lead the field, I think it's hard to beat that. As good as our car was, if we had the lead, there wasn't anybody that was really going to be able to pass us.

With that being said, you kind of tune your car around being the leader and having the clean air for a majority of the run until you get to lap cars. When we did lose the lead, it kind of changed the balance of our car.

It's always a fine line of how you adjust on your car throughout the race, depending on where you're running.

So that was probably a little bit of a challenge for us when we did lose the lead there. I think we were running fourth or fifth there at one point. The balance of the car changed a good bit. He was complaining about being tight in traffic.

As we got back to the lead, then obviously that helped fix it. So it's like, how much do you work on it for running fifth versus leading.

Q. You're the engineer, so when you look at the three championships, all of whom executed flawlessly, won the pole, won the race, it just seemed to kind of follow suit. Is there something to this track that just kind of dictates that? Is it just the way things happened this year?

PAUL WOLFE: Yeah, I don't know. It's a good question. I'm not really sure I could say that there's one thing to me that stands out that way.

Yeah, I mean, fast cars, good drivers, and yeah, I don't know. I can't say I could answer that one.

THE MODERATOR: Congratulations, Paul, and enjoy the off-season and the celebration.

PAUL WOLFE: Thank you, guys. I appreciate it.

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