Paul Wolfe

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NASCAR issues three lug nut penalties in final penalty report of season

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NASCAR has issued three penalties to crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts following the championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jason Ratcliff, crew chief on the No. 20 Toyota driven by Matt Kenseth, has been fined $20,000 and suspended one Cup points race for two unsecured lug nuts.

Ratcliff will be moving to the Xfinity Series to serve as Christopher Bell’s crew chief next season. The suspension is series specific. So he will be available to crew chief Bell in the season-opening race at Daytona.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief on Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Ford, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

In the Camping World Truck Series, Phil Gould, crew chief on Ryan Truex‘s No. 16 Toyota, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

Cup championship crew chiefs worried about tire allotment in Miami

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A 2015 Cup championship trophy sits in crew chief Adam Stevens’ office so he can see it every day.

“I kind of like to be reminded every time I come to work what we’re racing for and what the hard work we put in day in and day out and night in and night out and through all the grind of the season what it’s all for,’’ Stevens said.

He seeks another championship trophy with his driver, Kyle Busch, among the four racing for a title in Sunday’s season finale in Miami (3 p.m. ET, NBC).

The challenge for Busch and Stevens will be more than Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski for the championship. Stevens and other crew chiefs are concerned about the tire limits this weekend.

Cup teams will be allowed nine sets for the race plus the set they use in qualifying. Last year, teams had 12 sets available plus they could also use a set from practice.

Fewer sets of tires could mean more difficult decisions for crew chiefs, especially if there are a number of cautions.

“I think it changes a lot,’’ said Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick.

Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

Childers noted that in 2014 when he and Harvick won the title, they used 11 sets of tires in the 400-mile race.

“I don’t feel like there’s enough tires,’’ Childers said of the allotment for Sunday’s race. “The last thing you want to do is run out of tires with 40 laps to go and not be able to do anything or race for a championship at the end. I’ve been trying to push a little bit, see if we can’t get an extra set for the race.’’

Teams were allowed fewer tires in half of the playoff races this season compared to last year. NASCAR cut allotments for some races after examining tire usage by teams with Goodyear. NASCAR sought to have the number of sets available closer to what had been used in previous races.

The concern among crew chiefs is that tires could be critical because how much they wear at Homestead-Miami  Speedway. Greg Stucker, Goodyear director of racing, notes that the track has become one of the highest wear tracks on the circuit.

That’s just one of many concerns crew chiefs have entering the weekend. Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, has additional worries. His team has struggled to find speed in the playoffs. Keselowski has finished ahead of Truex twice in the first nine playoff races but neither were at 1.5-mile speedways, the length of Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Keselowski has been slower than Truex and Harvick in green flag speed and on restarts in all four of the playoff races on 1.5-mile tracks this season.

“We’ve just got to go down there and make speed,’’ Wolfe said. “That’s kind of as simple as it is. I feel good about what we’re bringing down there. I don’t know if it’ll be enough, but I’m proud of the effort that we’ve put in.’’

Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn arrive as what some will view as the favorite with seven victories this season, including six on 1.5-mile speedways. Pearn is fine with that role. It’s much better than in 2015, when the team entered the season finale as an underdog.

“I think at that point we were just thrilled to have made it, and I think we didn’t really know what to do,’’ he said. “It was like a dog chasing the car, we finally caught the car and we didn’t know what to do with it. 

“This past year and the year before we really tried to take more time and get ourselves prepared for Homestead itself. So I think, obviously, we won’t see that until this weekend, but it’s been in our mind for a long time, and really trying to get ourselves prepared for this race and probably have put more emphasis on it than we would have if we hadn’t have gone through what we did in 2015.’’

Brad Keselowski signs contact extension with Team Penske (video)

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Team Penske announced Tuesday that it has signed Brad Keselowski to a multi-year contract extension. The team also announced that crew chief Paul Wolfe has agreed to a multi-year extension.

“In the time that Brad has driven for Team Penske, he has risen to the top echelon of stars in NASCAR,” said team owner Roger Penske in a statement. “Brad and Paul have established a terrific, winning combination and they are both real leaders within our team. More than just wins and championships, Brad is an important part our relationship with Ford Performance and his work with the Checkered Flag Foundation shows what kind of person he is away from the track. There is no question he continues to be a great fit for our organization.”

MORE: Updated Silly Season scorecard 

Dave Pericak, Global Director, Ford Performance said:We are extremely happy to secure Brad’s renewal with Team Penske. Brad is an integral part of our Ford NASCAR program, and we appreciate his leadership within the team and among the drivers in this sport. We look forward to helping him take Ford and Team Penske to victory lane many more times in the years ahead.”

Keselowski has been with the organization since 2009, scoring 22 of his 23 career Cup wins with the team and the 2012 title. Keselowski has two wins this season and is sixth in the points heading into this weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway.

“Roger and everyone at Team Penske have given me everything we need to win championships at the highest levels of NASCAR,” Keselowski said in a statement. “As I have said all along, Team Penske is where I want to be and I am thrilled to continue with the organization well into the future. I have a lot of years left in the sport and I truly feel our best years are ahead of us.

“There is no one I want helping make my racecars go fast more than Paul Wolfe. We have a lot of continuity between the two of us, and really the entire No. 2 Ford team, which is so important in today’s NASCAR. With partners like Miller Lite, Alliance Truck Parts, Wurth, Autotrader, Fitzgerald Glider Kits, Discount Tire and Ford Performance in our corner, I feel like we have the strongest overall program in the sport.”

Terms of the deal were not announced other than the 33-year-old Keselowski will remain with the team “well into the future.”

Team Penske announced in February that 27-year-old Joey Logano, crew chief Todd Gordon and sponsor Shell had extended their contracts to 2022 and beyond.

“He’s an outside-the-box thinker, which you’ve got to have a few of those in the mix,” Logano said Tuesday during a Goodyear tire test at Dover. “We get along great, I consider him a good friend of mine. So to have him as a teammate, we can keep bouncing things off of each other, keep growing that relationship and understanding what makes each other tick at certain race tracks.”

Penske also has stated that he would like add a car for 23-year-old Ryan Blaney, who drives for the Wood Brothers – which is aligned with Team Pensnke.

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Ford teams continue to struggle for answers to speed, aero woes

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With eight wins in the first 19 Cup races this season – including three in the last six – you’d think Ford would be at the top of its game.

But such is not the case. While Toyota’s Martin Truex Jr. and Chevrolet’s Kyle Larson have been at or near the front often in recent races, Fords have dropped off in performance.

The two premier Ford teams, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing, have both struggled for more speed and to overcome aerodynamic issues.

“Aero is definitely an area we’re struggling,” Dave Pericak, Director, Ford Performance, said Thursday at Eldora Speedway. “We’re definitely not struggling from an engine perspective and many other areas, but yeah, aero, for sure, and we’re working on it.”

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, has watched his driver slip from third in the Cup standings to eighth in the last eight races. During that stretch, Keselowski has finished 30th or worse (crashes) four times, and had just two top fives.

“We’re not in the best spot we’d like to be in,” Wolfe admitted Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Seems like the last couple months have definitely been a challenge and a little bit of a struggle for all of us at Team Penske, not just the No. 2 car.

“We’re really just trying to find out what to do to get some speed back in our cars. It seems like where we get the cars driving and the drivers are somewhat happy with what we call a raceable balance, we’re just off on speed at that point. We can get the cars to run a fast lap time, but the drivers say they’re just not drivable and can’t race that way. It’s been a challenge trying to get both right now, and for whatever reason, we seem to be off.”

MORE: Brad Keselowski says ‘poorly designed car’ makes it difficult ‘to put on a show’

Time is not a luxury Wolfe or anyone else at Team Penske has. Seven races remain until the playoffs.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Wolfe said. “There’s not too many races here until Chicago comes around, so we’re trying to figure it out, that’s for sure.”

Wolfe’s Team Penske counterpart, Todd Gordon, faces an even greater sense of urgency with the No. 22 of Joey Logano. Even though Logano won at Richmond earlier this season, the victory doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after the race.

As a result, Logano is not locked into the playoffs and is in a seemingly must-win situation to secure a playoff berth. Things have gone from bad to worse of late: since his encumbered win at Richmond, Logano has finished between 21st and 37th seven times, with just one top-five and one other top-10 (plus a 12th-place finish) in the other three events.

Logano has fallen from fifth to 13th in the NASCAR Cup standings.

Wolfe can empathize with the plight of Logano and Gordon.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us, but this sport over the years, there’s peaks and valleys,” Wolfe said. “We’re been on the good side and bad side before.

“We’re going to have confidence everyone at Team Penske and Ford will continue to work in the right direction and hopefully get our speed where we need it to contend for a championship later this year.”

A tale of two seasons in just 19 races

Fords enjoyed early season success, winning the season’s first two races at Daytona (Kurt Busch) and Atlanta (Keselowski).

Ford also won at Martinsville, Richmond and Talladega – and earned three more wins in the last six races, but those came on a road course (Sonoma), a restrictor-plate track (Daytona) and a triangle that is seemingly part superspeedway and part road course (Pocono).

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has two wins (Talladega and Daytona), as does Keselowski (Atlanta and Martinsville), while Kurt Busch (Daytona 500), Joey Logano (Richmond), Ryan Blaney (Pocono) and Harvick (Sonoma) all have one win each.

But check out some of the other recent Ford stats:

* At Michigan, in its corporate backyard, Ford had one car in the top five and led just two of the 200 laps.

* At Kentucky, Ford had no cars in the top five and led just seven laps.

* At New Hampshire last weekend, Ford had one car in the top five and led zero laps.

How did things fall off so quickly for Ford when it came to downforce and lack of speed? Wolfe has a theory.

“As the season went on, NASCAR started changing enforcement of some templates and some aero things, and for whatever reason, it seems like it affected the Fords maybe more than Toyota,” Wolfe said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Obviously, Toyota came out with a new car, they were slow getting going, but they definitely have it figured out and seem to have a little bit of an advantage right now.

“I feel like some of the rule changes on the aero side has really affected our cars a lot and trying to get them balanced out, back to where they were before some of those changes has been difficult for us.”

When Wolfe thinks he is starting to get a handle on things, other questions arise he told “The Morning Drive.”

“Is it more of a mechanical area that we’re missing with this package because of the aero shift?” Wolfe said. “Or the amount of downforce it is, is there something we’re missing mechanically with the platform of how we control our splitter or ride heights?

“Or is it just the fact those guys just have more downforce than us? Those are all the question marks and we don’t really have the answers right now. Maybe we can get out of our comfort zone and mindset of what has had success in the past and explore new things. We’ll continue to do that and pay attention to teams that are having success.”

Stewart-Haas Racing also has woes

Wolfe’s counterpart at Stewart-Haas Racing, Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, admitted to “Tradin’ Paint” on Thursday that his team is pretty much in the same boat as Team Penske.

“I hate to even say it but I agree with (Wolfe),” Childers said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “On one side of me, I feel that we’re in trouble. I don’t know if we will get caught up to where we need to be.

“I feel l like it’s time that Ford is going to have to push hard and come up with a new body and do something to get us back in the ballgame from the downforce side of things.”

Childers would like to see NASCAR get more involved in the disparity he believes has developed between Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet.

“I think it’s time for NASCAR to take all the cars to the wind tunnel again and figure out where we’re all at,” Childers said. “If there are people that are way off, other teams, then we need to figure out how to make it more equal. You hate to get into that again.”

Even so, Childers remains confident in his team, given that Harvick is the highest-ranked Ford driver (fourth) in the Cup standings.

“The downforce stuff, we’re not way off,” he said. “I feel like we’ve kind of had the best Ford week after week here lately. We’re pushing hard and we’re not going to give up by any means and I think everybody will see that in our performance.

“But on the other hand I do feel like it has hurt us a little bit more and we just have to figure out how to dig through it.”

Ups and downs are cyclical

Childers also mentioned the irony that it wasn’t all that long ago that SHR and Harvick were being looked upon as the kings of performance (albeit in Chevrolets), much like Truex and Larson are today.

“I look back at the 2014 and 2015 seasons and everybody used to complain about us being the fastest car every week, leading all those laps and always have a shot at winning,” Childers said. “Looking back, I don’t even know if we understood then exactly what we were doing to be that much faster than everybody else.

“I think it’s the same way with (Truex and Larson) right now. They’ve done a good job, have their cars where they need them to be, their drivers are doing excellent jobs, the pit crews are doing a good job.”

But there’s still the bottom line.

“We have to get faster race cars,” Childers said. “Our pit crews have done excellent, Kevin’s done excellent, we just have to be faster when we unload off the haulers. Hopefully, we can get caught up a little bit.”

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Brad Keselowski’s crew chief will not be in Sonoma after birth of daughter

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Paul Wolfe will remain in North Carolina after the birth of his daughter, Halle Lane, a Team Penske spokesperson told NBC Sports on Friday.

Brian Wilson will serve as Brad Keselowski‘s crew chief this weekend. Wilson served in that role at Auto Club Speedway, Talladega and Kansas after NASCAR suspended Wolfe three races because Keselowski’s car failed the Laser Inspection Station after a fifth-place finish March 19 at Phoenix Raceway.

Wolfe missed the March 2014 Phoenix race for the birth of his first child.

Keselowski, who has two wins this season, is sixth in the points heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma.

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