Stewart-Haas Racing's decision to swap the car crews and crew chiefs of Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch caused a stir when it was initially announced a week ago, with many wondering where this left Patrick in the team hierarchy and what it might mean for her future in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Seven days on and the team's thinking has become a little clearer, and that if it works out then the swap should benefit both drivers in equal measure. The fiery Busch will get a calm and very experienced new crew chief in the form of Tony Gibson, while Patrick will now be partnered with Daniel Knost, a first-year crew chief described as "young, aggressive, very smart" by SHR's vice president of racing Greg Zipadelli.
Crucially, Knost comes from a technical background - he has a doctorate degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, making him more like the kind of figure that Patrick used to have working on her car back in her IndyCar Series days.
"He is definitely a lot like the kind of engineers – and, in fact, in IndyCar it is called an engineer instead of a crew chief – that I was used to dealing with," agreed Patrick. "I just think that it is something that I'm used to. I'm used to someone who has an engineering approach to what they do.
"Maybe getting back to something that actually I haven't really had in NASCAR, yet – I've had kind of all more crew-chief-style crew chiefs, old-school crew chiefs – maybe it will be something that will work better," she added. "I think everybody is looking for some magic and a relationship that takes you to the next level."
"She came from IndyCar, that is what they had," Zipadelli said. "They dealt with a lot of engineers and the way they do things is a little different than the old-school racer does things. She wants to know more about what they are doing and the comparisons and this and that and just trying to learn at the same time.
"She has made a ton of progress. Her speed on the racetrack, her qualifying is better, but our race finishes aren't. That is really what counts. So how do we help and encourage that? Right now, I just think that for where we are at this is a pretty good change."
As for the timing of the swap - coming three races from the end of the 2014 season - Patrick said that the upcoming testing ban for 2015 had been a major factor in the decision to fast track the move.
"With NASCAR changing some rules and letting us know at this point what they are going to be for next year, we know that we are not going to get a lot of on-track time before next season," she pointed out.
"If the team wants changes made or has ideas, it's probably in everybody's best interest to make moves now so that things can start off on the right foot for 2015 instead of starting from scratch and trying to develop an accurate dialogue and relationship on the radio."
She and Knost have already worked together in the past: "I know Daniel. He was my race engineer when I did eight races with Zipadelli [as crew chief] for Stewart-Haas in 2012. Really nice guy, very smart."
"We have gotten along, anyway, regardless of whether he has been on my car or not. I'm definitely open minded and looking forward to the opportunity to see how it will go with him.
"I think that we click about communicating 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," she continued. "If that takes a fast course in 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. I think that is always a challenge.
"If that is good, then that is, I feel like, a good sign for the future."
Whether the pairing of Patrick and Knost will depend on how thing go this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway and at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami to close out the season. At present, Knost's position is listed as 'interim' in contrast to Gibson, who has just signed a new three-year contract with SHR and it set to be Busch's crew chief for the foreseeable future in 2015.
"We got along really well and I think she has evolved a lot as a race car driver and, hopefully, I've evolved a lot as an engineer and a crew chief," said Knost. "Even though we know each other, it will kind of be a new experience for both of us.
"In general, we want to run as well as we can, make good decisions in practice on setups and improve the speed of the car," he went on. "We want to make good decisions during the race as far as strategy and we want to just build the rapport between us and make sure we understand each other and how we communicate."
"She's run well at the 1.5-mile tracks recently, so for me, we just want to continue that progress. I think Stewart-Haas has had pretty good set-ups at these tracks and we just want to continue to get better and better," he added.
Patrick hasn't managed to finish in the top 20 in any of her four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Texas Motor Speedways, but can take inspiration from an eighth place gained in the Nationwide Series race in April 2012, and from a second place finish here in her IndyCar Series days in 2010.
As for Patrick's outgoing crew chief Tony Gibson, he admitted it was "the right thing to do" to swap the teams around and leave Patrick in Knost's capable hands.
"It's a little sad," he said. "We've got two years invested with Danica and seeing some progress and things were moving forward. [But] I may fit Kurt better. You don't know until you try it."
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