MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) When Kurt Busch was eliminated from NASCAR title contention, it became apparent to both the driver and his owner that if a change was going to be made to his team it had to be done soon.
The change was a dramatic one: Stewart-Haas Racing will swap the crew chiefs for Busch and Danica Patrick beginning next week, giving each driver three races to work with their new teams. NASCAR has issued a ban on testing next season, so SHR believes it is giving its two teams a jump on 2015.
For Busch, who won at Martinsville Speedway in March and made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, the change was necessary to give team owner Gene Haas the results he wants. Haas hand-picked Busch to drive a new fourth car for SHR, but Busch believe he has underperformed with first-year crew chief Daniel Knost.
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”I think that’s why Gene Haas wanted to make a change. He wants more,” Busch said Friday at Martinsville. ”Winning a race and getting in the Chase isn’t what the 41 car is here to do. It’s to be competitive week in and week out and have shots at winning.”
Tony Gibson will move from Patrick’s car to Busch’s car, and Knost will take over Patrick’s team. Both will bring their entire crews with them, and both will start with next week’s test at Homestead.
Busch is excited to get a veteran crew chief in Gibson, who worked on Alan Kulwicki’s 1992 championship team and had stops at Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Knost has an engineering background and didn’t suit Busch’s style. He likes the ”old-school sense” he had early in his career with Jimmy Fennig, who led him to the 2004 championship at Roush Fenway Racing, and with Todd Berrier, who guided Busch to a Chase berth last year at Furniture Row Racing.
Busch said his troubles at Team Penske began when the organization became more engineering-driven.
”At Penske, some of the issues that were arising from the engineers advancing through the systems weren’t necessarily what was going to work best with me,” Busch said.
Knost’s background will suit Patrick, who is engineering-driven from her time in IndyCar.
”As far as Daniel, he’s a young, aggressive, very smart engineer. Danica is kind of used to more of that feeling with the engineers from her background,” said SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli. ”She actually a while ago talked about working with a younger engineer and building that relationship over time. I just feel like it was a time to do it.”
Zipadelli noted that Patrick has run better the last two months and her qualifying is up – her average starting spot is 21.3 compared to 30.1 last season – but she’s 27th in the Sprint Cup standings.
”She’s made a ton of progress,” Zipadelli said. ”Her speed on the racetrack, her qualifying is better, but her race finishes aren’t. And at the end of the day, that’s really what counts. So how do we help and encourage that?”
Knost was an engineer for Patrick when Zipadelli was her crew chief during her partial 2012 Cup season with SHR and already has a relationship with her crew chief.
Still, he’s only been given an interim tag and has three races to work things out with Patrick.
”We click and the things that are felt in the race car and then conveyed over the radio and the changes that are made in relationship to that, if that takes a fast course and a good direction and we seem to click well and make progress throughout the weekend, then I think that will be a really positive sign,” Patrick said. ”That’s always a challenge. If that’s good, then I feel like that’s a good sign for the future.”
For now, the biggest concern seems to be regarding how Gibson handles Busch, who tends to get heated on the radio with his crew chiefs. Zipadelli acknowledged that Knost was ”thrown to the wolves” in that regard, but contends Gibson’s experience makes it a non-factor.
”That’s just one of those things that comes along with Kurt,” Zipadelli said. ”I think (Gibson’s) heard it all. You let it go in one ear and out the other.”