New crew chiefs key push for improvement at SHR
January 27, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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At Stewart-Haas Racing, the driver lineup can be so incandescent, it threatens to blind you to everything else. There's Tony Stewart with his half-smile and half-scowl, ready to make a comeback from his broken right leg. There's Kurt Busch, once again among the elite after two seasons in exile. There's Kevin Harvick, primed for perhaps his best run at a title. There's Danica Patrick, keeping those souvenir rigs on the move. That roster shines so brightly, you need sunglasses just to read it on paper.
And yet, the backbone of what could be a three-headed attack on the Sprint Cup Series championship -- not to mention a four-pronged assault on the Daytona 500 -- might very well be found somewhere else. Everyone's wondering how this new mix of drivers at SHR is going to fare. Few have realized that this new mix of crew chiefs at SHR is going just fine, thank you, to the point where the cars at the organization's different race programs are already closer together than they were last year.
"Our cars have all migrated to much, much similar, almost identical race cars, which we never had," said Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli. "They’ve just been all over the world with all kinds of different things. Getting us to work together as team will hopefully allow us to make changes, and identify problems and situations a little easier. These guys have done a really good job of working together. You couldn’t ask for much more than that at this time."
A team that seemed behind on its car development entering last season may find that exact same area to be a strength in 2014, thanks in large part to three new crew chiefs at an SHR organization that's been overhauled well beyond the drivers' seats. Late last year, Rodney Childers moved over from Michael Waltrip Racing's No. 55 team to oversee the No. 4 program of Harvick. After MWR shut down its No. 56 team due to a sponsor's departure, Chad Johnston was freed to replace Steve Addington on Stewart's No. 14 car. And Daniel Knost, formerly a race engineer for Ryan Newman, was promoted to crew chief for Busch's No. 41.
The three new signal-callers join Tony Gibson, who remains in charge of Danica Patrick's No. 10 team, and comprise a group that's just as integral to SHR's success as its new faces behind the wheel. Thanks in part to a long previous working relationship between Johnston and Childers, and a similarity in mindsets between the MWR expatriates and Knost, the group has quickly found common ground despite a rapid expansion process to accommodate the team's fourth car.
Even with all the upheaval, Zipadelli says the cars at SHR are "way better" than they were at this time a year ago. That's no small detail, given that Stewart, Newman and Patrick all stumbled early last season in the aftermath of a promising Daytona 500.
"It's worked out good for all of us, really," said Childers, who juggled multiple drivers at MWR, and won at New Hampshire last season with Brian Vickers. "I think we all have a lot of trust in each other. I think the crew chiefs that are there now, we all think alike. Daniel and Chad have engineering backgrounds, and I was basically taught to crew chief as an engineer, even though I don't have a degree. We all use (simulation) the same way; we all use that stuff to build our cars and do things the right way. There's not any guessing games about anything. Either this shows us this is the right way, or we're not doing it. So I think having everybody on that same level and thinking the same has just helped the whole organization."
The assimilation of the new crew chiefs has been a smooth one, surely helped by the fact that Childers and Johnston have worked together since they both joined Ray Evernham's team in 2006. They found something of a kindred soul in Knost, who believes rule changes, attitudes, and the speed of Harvick's car at the December test at Charlotte helped the three new signal-callers all find quickly common ground amid their new surroundings.
"A lot of the games and tricks you used to play with on a car, you don't necessarily have to do that anymore," Knost said. "People are looking for ideas right now, so I think that sparks dialogue. And then you go to the Charlotte test and the 4 car was really good there, so all of the sudden there's kind of a stake in the sand, and we all say, 'We need to huddle around that flag.' As we get more comfortable with what our drivers want and how we're going to work with them, I think you'll see some diversion. I think that's healthy. I think that encourages a rapid growth rate if everyone is encouraged to develop in the dimension they consider most important. But every time someone wins or sits on the pole, it kind of re-centers the group as to what's critical."
The push for more unified car development is clearly coming from the former MWR crew chiefs. "We've been together for a while, so we want similar things done to our race cars," Johnston said of he and Childers. "It makes the other two more likely to jump on board when it's majority-type rule. So we're bringing fresh ideas in to be able to take them and test them and prove them. At the end of the day, if you can get four guys giving you all of their ideas, you're going to get better four times as fast, and that's what our goal is."
Indeed, after the speed Harvick showed in the Dec. 11 test at Charlotte, Johnston told Childers, "Make 'em all like the 4." The move was understandable, given that Childers started at SHR in late fall of last year, and had a real head start on 2014. The affable former go-karting champion also has a very clear way of how he wants things done, right down to the appearance of his cars, taking his cue from Jimmie Johnson's six-time championship crew chief Chad Knaus.
"I think the biggest thing is, the place really needed some excitement, and it needed some change, and there's been a lot of change. You had ideas that were there, and how (some) people wanted to do it. You had probably me pushing the most on, 'We're going to do it this way, and we're going to make this stuff look this way, and we're going to do things nice and neat and make them look good for our sponsors.' Just everybody has been working together really, really well," Childers said.
"Probably the biggest thing for me and the most fun for me is, it's my team. I can do it the way I want to do it. I can build cars the way I want to, I can have equipment look the way I want to, and I can assemble the deal like Chad Knaus can. When you're a competitor in the garage, you always look at that 48 team. You want to be them. You want to do it like them. I feel like up until this point, that’s what we've done so far. Now we've just got to back it up and win races."
To Zipadelli, the three new crew chiefs fit well with Gibson. "They all complement each other," the competition director said. They also fit their new drivers. Johnston is quiet, Zipadelli added, but very firm in what he wants, and that's helpful to Stewart -- who, due to his ownership role, isn't as involved on the car side as some other drivers. Knost, who has been with the SHR organization since its Haas-CNC days, believes he's in a good position to interpret Busch's sometimes fiery countenance over the radio.
"I would say the biggest thing is understanding where he's coming from, and that's the position of really wanting to be the best," Knost said. "So for me, externally, I try to be very even. Internally, I'm probably not so different than he is. So I can identify with that."
And it seems clear the three new crew chiefs at SHR can identify with one another, perhaps the strongest signal yet that the team's race cars will be improved from 2014. "It's not necessarily three guys with three totally separate sets of ideas," Johnston said. "Rodney and I have similar ideas and similar ways of thinking, so I think that helps. And they’ve been more than willing to open their minds to our way of thinking and do what we think we need to do to get better."