Kurt Busch talks with crew chief Daniel Knost. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Crew chief Daniel Knost sees better things ahead for Kurt Busch and 41 team

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Although he’ll likely make the Chase for the Sprint Cup based upon his win earlier this season at Martinsville, to say this has been a good first half-season for Kurt Busch may be a bit of a stretch.

With Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 marking the halfway point of the 2014 Sprint Cup season, the elder Busch brother has struggled more than succeeded in the first 17 races of his tenure at Stewart Haas Racing:

* Even with the Martinsville win, he has only two other top-five finishes and no other top-10 showings.

* His average start is decent (13.5), but his average finish (22.2) is mediocre at best.

* Busch has finished outside the top-20 in 10 of those first 17 races.

* Perhaps the most disappointing part of the season is his ranking: he’s been 26th in the standings for the past three weeks. Busch is the lowest-ranked driver who has at least one win and is all but qualified for the Chase. The next lowest ranked is Denny Hamlin (17th).

But crew chief Daniel Knost is optimistic that things can change around for Busch and the No. 41 team in the second half of the season.

“Definitely, our first goal is to be more consistent,” Knost said in a team media release. “Consistency is really important over the long haul in racing. I think we need to continue to improve our pure speed. I think we’ve made significant gains in that area, but there is still more room to improve.

“We certainly want to win a few more races. We want to develop consistency and develop a very pragmatic approach by the time we hit the Chase so we aren’t doing as much guesswork.”

This is Knost’s first season as a Sprint Cup crew chief. And while he’s essentially been learning on the job, he sees signs of improvement for Busch and the No. 41 team, and is also at the point where some recent finishes could have been better in his mind.

“Honestly, I think in two of our last three races where we scored a top-15 finish, we had the potential to be significantly better than that so, to me, the execution has got to be better,” Knost said. “You have to continue to evolve in this sport and anyone who stays stagnant is going to continue to fall behind.

“What was a good car last year is not a good car this year. What was a good car at the beginning of this year is not as good of a car now. What is a race-winning car at this point won’t be by the end of the year, so you need to continue to evolve as far as cars continue to get better.”

Knost’s comfort level increases with each race, and now that the series is revisiting tracks for the second time this season, Knost has a more of a baseline to work with.

“I would say I’m more comfortable,” Knost said. “At this point, I have more of an expectation for the way that practices lay out and how the week lays out. I’m more comfortable with making decisions. As far as Daytona goes, there is a lot that’s out of your control. I guess I knew that going in, but now I really know that. From that perspective, I guess I would say that I just have more of an idea in terms of expectations.”

Knost and Busch have developed a good rapport and communication. Unfortunately, five DNFs (three crashes, two engine issues) have put the team behind.

“I’ve definitely learned that people respond to things differently,” Knost said. “Whether it’s communication, circumstances or results, everyone responds to those things differently. One of the key things to get right as a team leader is to figure out how to work with all of these different people and try to find a way to get the best out of each one of them when they don’t react the same to certain things. That’s been a big learning curve.

“Technically, there are all sorts of little details that, each time you come out of a test, practice or race, you look back at the things you did well and the things you missed. You hope you don’t miss those things multiple times. I feel like there have been plenty of things I would do differently if given another opportunity. I think there are some things I’ve done well and would do again if given the opportunity but, in general, you just see a lot of the little details someone with more experience might take for granted. Those are the things that become second nature with experience but, when you haven’t done it before, you have to actively think about it.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: 2016 Mexican GP

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 27:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing arrive at the circuit in full Dia de Muertos face paint during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 27, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 returns to Mexico this weekend with memories of last year’s exuberant event still fresh and the championship battle finely poised.

Nico Rosberg may have lost out to Mercedes teammate and title rival Lewis Hamilton last weekend in Austin, Texas, but the German is still 26 points clear heading to Mexico City.

Rosberg can mathematically win the championship this Sunday, but needs Hamilton not to score and would have to win the race himself.

What can we expect in Mexico this weekend? MST F1 writers Luke Smith and Tony DiZinno make their picks.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton was effortless flawless in Austin. I’ll say he’ll carry that form through to Mexico on Sunday and tick another track off his win list.

Surprise Finish: Sergio Perez. While I doubt Perez can hit the podium, I reckon he could get among the Ferrari drivers and take home another top five finish for Force India on home soil.

Most to Prove: Esteban Gutierrez. At his first home grand prix weekend, Gutierrez needs to impress as he bids to remain with Haas for 2017.

Additional Storyline: Rosberg’s approach. Will Rosberg play things safe in Mexico? Or could he try and finish what he started with a 10th victory of the season? Keep an eye on his on-track attitude.

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. It may not matter for the championship if Nico Rosberg finishes second but thanks to his on-form weekend in Austin, I think Hamilton can carry the momentum to Mexico and add this circuit to his tally of victories. A win here would tie him with Alain Prost for second all-time on 51.

Surprise Finish: Sergio Perez. Going to peg the Mexican for at least a top-five finish on home soil in Mexico City. A Mercedes-powered Williams got on the podium here last year, and I’m going to be so bold as to see Perez scores P3 here thanks to some abnormal circumstances taking the Red Bulls and Ferraris from podium contention.

Most to Prove: Renault’s current pair. I wrote the same last week, but after both Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer had a weekend to forget in Austin, either or both of them need to step up this weekend. Problem here is, it will be extra difficult considering neither raced here last year.

Additional Storyline: Mexico year two. Much as we always look at how COTA does year-on-year, will Mexico’s second outing of its return to the calendar feature the same festive crowd, atmosphere and presence or will there be a drop off?

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Sergio Perez Force India

Aoyama to replace injured Pedrosa for Malaysia MotoGP round

MOTEGI, JAPAN - OCTOBER 15:   Hiroshi Aoyama of Japan and Repsol Honda Team (rides in place of Dani pedrosa of Spain) heads down a straight during the practice during the MotoGP of Japan - Qualifying at Twin Ring Motegi on October 15, 2016 in Motegi, Japan.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
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Honda test rider Hiroshi Aoyama will return to the MotoGP grid this weekend in Malaysia, deputizing for the injured Dani Pedrosa.

Pedrosa sustained a fractured collarbone after crashing during practice for the Japanese Grand Prix, with Aoyama stepping in for the remainder of the weekend at Motegi. The Japanese rider finished 15th, scoring one point.

American rider Nicky Hayden stood in last weekend in Australia, but is unable to race in Malaysia due to a clash with the World Superbike Championship. As a result, Aoyama will return for the race weekend at the Sepang International Circuit.

“I’m very glad to have the chance to ride for the Repsol Honda Team again, as in Japan it was a bit challenging to start Saturday morning from FP3, to adapt to the bike and to try and find my rhythm,” Aoyama said.

“I hope this time things will work out well and I can find a good feeling with the bike since the beginning. All of us wish for Dani coming back soon, but until he is recovered I’ll do my best for Honda and for the Repsol Honda Team.

“Tuesday was my 35th birthday and I’m simply happy to be here in Malaysia, which is a country I particularly like and I look forward to enjoy racing at the Sepang Circuit.”

Rosberg focused on winning the race, not the championship, in Mexico

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP talks in the Drivers Press Conference during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 27, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg insists that he is only focused on winning the race and not the championship this weekend when Formula 1 visits Mexico City.

Rosberg is able to clinch his maiden F1 drivers’ championship this Sunday in Mexico, but only if he wins the race and Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton fails to score any points.

The German has long insisted that he is approaching the championship on a race by race basis, and won’t change that stance in Mexico.

“I’m well aware of that,” Rosberg said when reminded he could win the title on Sunday.

“It’s been a great season so far which has put me in this position. It’s exciting to be in this championship battle with Lewis towards the end of the season.

“For me, my way of achieving the best possible result is to focus on the things that are in my control. In Mexico, that’s winning the race.

“For the championship, it’s not really in my control if I get it this weekend. It’s about winning the race and then see what happens.”

Rosberg maintained the approach when asked what winning the world championship would mean to him.

“It’s a childhood dream. But that’s where it ends for me,” Rosberg said.

“For me important this weekend is winning the Mexican GP.”

Rosberg was also asked about F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone’s suggestion over the United States Grand Prix weekend that the German winning the title would not be as good for F1 as if Hamilton won it.

“I spoke to him personally and he said that’s not exactly the way he said it,” Rosberg said.

“But for me it’s not something that’s important to me. I focus on my thing. That’s it.”

Rosberg won last year’s grand prix in Mexico when F1 returned after 23-year hiatus, and is relishing the opportunity to race in front of a passionate home crowd.

“I have great memories from here last year, winning here was awesome,” Rosberg said.

“The podium is one of the best in the year in the baseball stadium, it was absolutely phenomenal.”

Red Bull’s ‘Mad Max’ Verstappen adds flair and drama to F1

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing sits in his car in the garage before the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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It’s been a wild season for young Max Verstappen.

The talented Dutch teenager has been promoted to Red Bull, become the youngest winner in Formula One history and bickered with some of the top teams and drivers in the sport. His aggressive tactics have even prompted a rules clarification for safety.

“Mad Max” is brash, won’t be intimidated and to many, he’s a much-needed dose of excitement for Formula One and a future champion. The kid seized on his chance to be fast and famous and won’t let go.

“Why wait?” Verstappen said. “I have a great car, a great team, and I want it all as quickly as possible.”

Verstappen is squeezing everything he can into this season as Formula One races this week in Mexico City. At the U.S. Grand Prix in Texas last week, Verstappen provided days of drama worthy of a 19-year-old still learning how to navigate a grown-up sport.

The teams had barely left Japan two weeks earlier when Mercedes considered, then opted not to file a complaint over his defensive moves against Lewis Hamilton in a braking zone. Verstappen finished second and Hamilton’s third-place finish pushed him further back in the 2016 title chase against teammate Nico Rosberg.

By the time drivers got to Austin, several used their Friday meeting to complain about their precocious rival. Having heard similar comments several times this season, Formula One officials issued a rule clarification: blocking during braking would be deemed illegal and punished. It took about 10 minutes for the media to call it the “Verstappen Rule.”

He shrugged.

“Maybe they can get past (me), now,” Verstappen said.

Conflicts have also flared in the Red Bull garage.

After getting an early warning during the race to save his tires, Verstappen barked over his car radio that he’s “not here to finish fourth!” A few laps later, he mistakenly went into a pit stop without a team order. He was out of the race a few laps later with a gearbox problem.

Even that disrupted teammate Daniel Ricciardo. Unable to race but still mobile, Verstappen tried to nurse his car around the track before he eventually pulled over and stopped. That brought out a yellow flag, which meant Ricciardo lost valuable time in his battle for second with Rosberg. Ricciardo finished third.

“When I saw Max out there, I thought, ‘Ah hell, my boy’s done it again.’ That was a devastating moment, but we’ll keep soldiering on,” Ricciardo said.

Team leadership was not amused.

“We have 80 engineers and strategists, but it’s all useless if a driver decides alone to come into the pits,” Red Bull racing consultant Helmut Marko told Autoweek.

Verstappen is the son of race driver Jos Verstappen, who made 106 career Formula One starts, and his talent caught a lot of attention from teams growing up. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff tried to sign Verstappen when he was 14 before Red Bull snagged him.

Wolff, whose drivers are chasing each other for the team’s third consecutive championship, has alternately called Verstappen “refreshing” and “dangerous” and has even compared him to Formula One’s revered Ayrton Senna.

“He comes in here with no fear, no respect, puts the elbows out,” Wolff said earlier this season.

That approach has worn thin on some teams, most notably Ferrari and its two former world champion drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. Raikkonen has warned Verstappen could cause a “massive accident” with his driving.

But Verstappen’s critics have done most of their shouting at him from the rear. Before his car failed him in Texas, Verstappen finished second in Malaysia and Japan. His five podium finishes in the last 10 races are three more than Vettel and Raikkonen combined.

And back in Spain, when the Mercedes cars knocked each other out in a first-lap crash, Verstappen leaped to the front and doggedly held off Raikkonen for his first career victory in his first race for Red Bull.

Verstappen drives with swagger and a win Sunday in Mexico would come on his 20th birthday. His critics have done little damage to his confidence or skills behind the wheel.

“No,” Verstappen said. “I am a grown-up boy.”