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NASCAR Chase for the Cup could come down to crew chiefs Chad Knaus, Paul Wolfe

Most crew chiefs operate in shadowy obscurity. Chad Knaus, by contrast, shares the NASCAR marquee with driver Jimmie Johnson because they have achieved five Sprint Cup championships marching in inseparable lockstep.

That might escalate the challenge confronting Paul Wolfe in the Ford EcoBoost 400 season finale Sunday even beyond that testing his strong-willed 28-year-old driver, Brad Keselowski.

In Johnson, Keselowski will square off against a champion who now keeps historic company with icons Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. But Wolfe must match crew-chief skills as strategist, psychologist and cheerleader with arguably the best who has ever climbed a pit box and donned a headset.

For Wolfe and Keselowski, the task remains daunting. But for neither, through nine of the 10 Chase for the Cup races, has it appeared the tiniest bit intimidating.

Indeed, it was a severe misadventure suffered by Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team last Sunday at Phoenix that staked Keselowski and the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge team to a solid 20-point head start Sunday.

A blown tire as Johnson pressed in pursuit of Keselowski sent the No. 48 into the wall, and saddled Johnson with a 32nd-place finish. Keselowski wound up sixth. Consequently, a 15th-place finish or better will guarantee Keselowski, Wolfe and the rest of Roger Penske’s team a championship celebration.

Wolfe insisted Tuesday that the team will prepare no differently for the Ford 400 than how it has achieved command of its own destiny.

“We’re just trying to stay in our normal routine,” he said. Deviating from that is “how mistakes are possibly made.”

They plan to stay on offense, not defense, within reason. Knowing that 15th place at the end of 400 miles would be sufficient serves as minimal comfort and should not alter his preparation or motivational approach, Wolfe added.

“It’s not like 15th is a cakewalk,” Wolfe emphasized. Keselowski has finished no worse than 11th in any of the nine Chase races to date, with a pair of victories. But to conclude that Keselowski can “just go down to Homestead and ride around and finish 15th and all is well … that’s kind of scary to even think about.”

Wolfe clearly recognizes and respects the level of excellence the No. 48 operation has attained. Knaus’ results charting Johnson’s course speaks volumes, Wolfe said. Knaus has been Johnson’s crew chief throughout an 11-year career that has produced 60 victories and never a Cup points finish worse than his sixth last year.

Wolfe, once a lower-tier driver and later a crew chief for low-budget Nationwide teams, caught the attention of Penske Racing in 2009 and accepted an offer to direct Keselowski’s successful 2010 Nationwide title quest.

Keselowski, performing double duty, ran the Sprint Cup schedule with a different crew chief in 2010 with limited success. Penske linked up Wolfe with Keselowski at the Cup level also in 2011, and they teamed for a fifth-place points finish, one spot in front of Johnson. Theirs looms as a long-term association.

Wolfe, as low-key as Keselowski is high-profile, was asked what it would mean to him to achieve NASCAR’s pinnacle in only the third year of their partnership.

“I’ve tried not to let my mind go there right now,” he said.

He wants to keep his focus channeled on the No. 2 and the Ford 400 and deflect the ramifications.

Should Keselowski encounter trouble along the way, that will put the Penske team to the kind of test that, over the years, has markedly enhanced Wolfe’s appreciation for what Knaus and Johnson have accomplished.

“To me, what defines a championship-caliber team is one that can take a really bad day and turn it into a good points day,” Wolfe said. “It’s being able to overcome adversity.”

No greater example exists than when Johnson spun and crashed at Kansas in the Chase’s sixth race. With Knaus barking orders, the crew affected significant sheet metal repairs with hammers and large swatches of tape.

On a radio communication during one of at least a half-dozen stops during a caution, Knaus could be heard shouting, “Hit it with the hammer … right there, between the ‘O’ and the ‘W’ [in Lowe’s].’’ Johnson did not lose a lap and salvaged a ninth-place finish, only one spot behind Keselowski.

Crew chiefs make the large decisions. Pit or don’t pit. Change two tires, four tires or no tires. But where on crumpled sheet metal to land the sledgehammer head? Knaus spares no detail. Wolfe seeks to emulate that.