New Crew Chiefs Face Challenges
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on February 27, 2014 | 11:00 P.M. EST
Daniel Knost says a challenge for him as a new crew chief will be when to gamble with strategy. (Photo: Jeff Wackerlin)
Daniel Knost’s biggest challenge as a new crew chief isn’t putting together a team, determining race-day strategy or discussing adjustments with Kurt Busch. That easy compared to what he says is his biggest challenge.
“Finding speed,’’ he said, sounding more like a veteran instead of a crew chief with one Sprint Cup race as experience.
Knost isn’t alone this year. He’s one of four new crew chiefs among major NASCAR Sprint Cup teams. While each faced challenges at Daytona, they’ll play a greater role in how their team performs beginning this weekend at Phoenix International Speedway. Teams can do more with setups and pit strategy plays a bigger role this weekend than at Daytona.
The new crew chiefs might not get any breaks at Phoenix, though. Saturday’s forecast calls for rain, which could threaten both Cup practices. If both are canceled, that would give teams only one Friday practice session before racing. Not exactly the way new crew chiefs want to have their first weekend at a non-restrictor-plate track.
It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve experienced shortened weekends. All are veterans in the sport.
Knost served as lead engineer for Ryan Newman’s team last year before moving to become the crew chief for Busch at Stewart-Haas Racing. Keith Rodden, longtime engineer for Kasey Kahne, is Jamie McMurray’s crew chief. Trent Owens moves from the Nationwide Series to be Aric Almirola’s crew chief. Billy Scott, an engineer the past two seasons at Michael Waltrip Racing, serves as Brian Vickers’ crew chief.
None had a memorable Daytona 500. McMurray finished 14th, Busch was 21st after a late-race spin that did not bring out the caution, Vickers placed 30th after he was collected in a crash, and Almirola was 39th, a wreck ending his race.
Knost will get some help atop the pit box with former crew chief Matt Borland, vice president of engineering at Stewart-Haas Racing, there to help him with calls. Knost and Borland have worked together for years and their relationship should help smooth Knost’s move to crew chief.
Knost admits he might need some help with strategy early in the season.
“As far as in the race, just trying to get your head around everything that is happening, how are the cards being played and how are you going to play your cards,’’ Knost said. “Quite frankly, having the guts to go for it when you’re in a pinch. We made some avery aggressive calls as times last year. It’s easy for me to say it, but then Matt had to have the guts to go for it. That will be the challenge in having the confidence you’re making a strong play at the right time.’’
Rodden knows a key challenge will be relating what McMurray says about the car and making it better. Rodden had been with Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis most of the last decade.
Rodden said NASCAR’s December test helped him learn McMurray’s cadence and what he liked in his cars. That was the test where NASCAR had teams run short races to try rule changes for this season. Rodden said he left the car purposely tighter or looser to see how McMurray handled it and how he described the car.
“He explains stuff very similarly to what I’ve heard,’’ Rodden said of McMurray.
The challenge for Owens moving up is learning how his competitors will call a race. Owens had been a crew chief in the Nationwide Series since 2006. He knew how his competitors called races and who was willing to take gambles and who wasn’t. Moving to Cup, though, Owens doesn’t have that knowledge.
“Learning the other crew chiefs on pit road, their strategies and their habits, it may take a little time to get a feel for how other guys call races,’’ he said. “Nationwide, I was there for so long I had a feel. I’m sure that stuff will come pretty fast.’’
It will have to for each because or they could fall behind quickly.