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.”

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Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds