There’s no grace period for Daniel Knost to hone his crew chief skills before his Sprint Cup Series debut.
That debut has arrived.
This weekend, Knost will have his coming-out party at Daytona International Speedway atop the No. 41 Haas Automation pit box for driver Kurt Busch. Although he’s never been a crew chief, the 35-year-old Charlotte native has a pragmatic approach to his latest assignment.
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"The nice thing about being with someone like Kurt is it’s going to be very clear when you’re doing something right and when you’re doing something wrong," Knost said. "If you’re doing things right, he’s going to make you look like a hero. If you’re doing things wrong, it’s pretty clear you’re missing the boat.
"So you can remove the question in your mind and just focus on what you need to do because you know this guy can point you down the right path. That’s a luxury most of the people in my position as a first-time crew chief don’t get. You may get lucky and get a young hotshot that you don’t know, but in my case I’m getting an established veteran who everyone knows and everyone agrees has everything it takes to be successful."
Knost started working at Haas-CNC Racing upon completing his Masters and PhD in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech in 2008. He believes that from a technical perspective his formal education provided him with "a foundation in the fundamentals" to be successful in racing. Knost worked on Haas-CNC’s computer network and in the seven-post shaker rig learning chassis setup before providing at-track engineering support for what evolved into Stewart-Haas Racing.
What Knost didn’t learn in school were the necessary people skills it takes to lead a race team, but his leadership has improved during his tenure at SHR. Two years ago, he became the team engineer for the No. 10 car during Danica Patrick’s limited run. Last year, under the direction of his mentor Matt Borland, he moved into a similar role with Ryan Newman’s No. 39 team.
"I think the world of this guy," Borland said of Knost. "He’s the smartest guy we have in the building. He’s got a good big-picture view of how racing works, and there’s not a lot of people that have that. I think he’s going to do a great job with that.
"Obviously, he’ll stub his toes a few times the first year, but that’s to be expected."
Borland plans to join Knost at the track for the first couple of months "to be there in case anything comes up." He has shadowed Knost throughout his latest transition and while the team tested extensively during the winter to help both the crew chief and the driver get up to speed.
Before taking to the track Friday, the team participated in testing at Charlotte Motor Speedway in December and at Daytona, Nashville and New Smyrna Speedways in January so the crew would have the benefit of gathering data at a superspeedway, an intermediate track and a short track.
"We spaced them out nice so we could debrief on everything," Busch said. "To me, that’s a nice pace as new people so we can get on the same page, just run through some sequences and allow the crew chief and driver to work on communication and also advancing with this new ride-height rule and learning what the Generation 6 car needs."
Busch believes the No. 41 has evolved into a championship-caliber team due to Knost’s "level of comfort and his level of confidence."
"I think that’s the biggest (area) I have seen develop every week during the offseason," Busch said. "He is perfect. He’s ready, and it’s a nice feeling to have him ready to go and have a fresh crew chief’s outlook. With the points structure this year, with the qualifying procedures this year, with the new no-ride-height rule and how a car has got to get through technical inspection, you almost want a brand new guy that has the least amount of experience to go off of trends because this year there are no trends right now."
As a rookie, Knost knows he will struggle. But with the "great support structure" surrounding him at SHR as well as a driver with something to prove, Knost is confident the team will persevere.
"Kurt’s level of dedication, his attention to detail and energy, is impressive," Knost said. "It really stands out once you get to know him. As far as me, I put a lot of pressure on myself. It doesn’t matter what level you do it at, there’s a certain level of expectation for excellence and that never changes."