Greg Zipadelli won two Sprint Cup championships as Tony Stewart's crew chief by trusting his instincts. So as vice president of competition for Stewart-Haas Racing, Zipadelli put faith in his gut again when choosing the crew chief who'll lead Danica Patrick in the next phase of her NASCAR career.
Thirty-eight-year-old Billy Scott is an even-keeled mechanical engineer who comes to SHR from shuttered Michael Waltrip Racing. If Zipadelli is right, he's the best match yet for Patrick's fiery temperament, sometimes shaky confidence and perhaps unrealistic expectations.
"I just like the guy," Zipadelli said. "Just sitting and talking to him, he seems very patient, very methodical."
That isn't to say Zipadelli didn't do his due diligence. He talked to people whom Scott worked with previously, including universally respected Rodney Childers, now crew chief at SHR for 2014 Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick, and driver Clint Bowyer, who'll replace the retiring Stewart after next season. They sung praises about Scott's technical and managerial skills.
But "honestly," Zipadelli said, "the biggest thing was just talking to him and learning how he worked with Brian Vickers and some of the things he liked and was involved with, and that sounded similar to Danica. I think Billy's extremely patient. I think he'll spend a lot of time talking with her and explaining things and helping her to grow, and that's what she's kind of craving."
What's obvious is Patrick -- who wasn't available to comment for this story -- needed a change. The 2015 season, which was supposed to be so crucial for her, had few highlights after the opening two months. That Patrick landed a new primary sponsor and contract with SHR was more a reflection of the added value she brings sponsors as a history-making female driver and fan favorite than her progress on the track.
That isn't to say she hasn't had her moments on the track.
Patrick started out well enough with cerebral PhD engineer crew chief Daniel Knost, scoring two top-10 (Martinsville and Bristol) and four top-16 finishes in the first eight races to climb to 13th in the point standings. But the pair tailed off, with Patrick failing to score another top-10 finish over the final 28 races, and winding up a lackluster 24th in the points.
Even with teammate/boss Tony Stewart having the worse season of his career, no one can say Patrick maximized the resources of a team that placed its two other drivers in the playoffs.
While Zipadelli acknowledges that any evaluation of Patrick involves looking at the bigger picture, he's nowhere near ready to accept her performance to date as an acceptable ceiling.
"I'm telling you, I really believe there's no reason in the world she can't run 12th to 15th every week if they get their stuff together and the team shows up and works hard and her confidence goes up," he said.
Which is where Scott is supposed to come in.
"We had an opportunity to make a change with somebody we were trying to hire for a couple of different positions, just sitting and talking to him for a while, explaining Danica's situation, what I felt like she needed, and here was a kid who put his hand up and said, 'I'll do that. I can do that,'" Zipadelli said. "He said, 'I'm in. I'll take that challenge.' I like that. That's a positive thing. He had other opportunities here, and he said, 'No, I'll do that. I think I can help her.'"
Knost will still be helping, although in his new senior leadership role of manager of vehicle dynamics, he'll be based at the shop working on all of the cars driven by Patrick, Stewart, Harvick and Kurt Busch.
"We love Daniel," Zipadelli said. "We appreciate all he's done, and we want him to be here a long time."
Searching for the right chemistry
So has Patrick simply not found the right crew chief yet?
She has had two through her first three full-time Sprint Cup seasons -- the old-school and colorful Tony Gibson for 71 races (including two in 2012), and Knost for the last 39 -- and her performance hasn't varied much. Over the last three seasons, Patrick has finished 27th, 28th and 24th in points, with season average finishes of 26.1, 23.7 and 23.5 and no top-five finishes.
Bottom line: Changing from Gibson to Knost didn't make much of a difference.
"This past season wasn't a disaster," Zipadelli said. "It just wasn't' moving forward as much as it did early in the season. So the change isn't necessarily about Daniel not doing a good job, I think she's pretty stubborn, and Daniel's pretty stubborn. They butted heads at times a little more than maybe they should have. But I think they had a respect for each other. She wasn't sitting there jumping up and down and saying she needed a crew chief change. It was just kind of a situation that we could move some people around and see if we could make everything a little better."
Scott, an UNC-Charlotte graduate from Land O' Lakes, Florida, has already gotten to work on the 2016 season and says he relishes the challenge of making the circuit's only full-time female driver relevant on a consistent basis.
"I don't think there's any different approach from my standpoint because of that, but, yeah, it is neat at the end of the day to sit back and look at it and know she is one of the more popular drivers on the circuit," Scott said. "There are things about it that are different. It's cool to be involved in, but I don't think it changes the way we would approach a weekend or our goals or anything."
Crew chief can't make it perfect
Patrick, for her part, will spend at least part of the all-too-brief NASCAR offseason preparing for the next phase. For 2016, she'll trade the familiar green, orange and black GoDaddy colors for the light blue and white of new primary sponsor Nature's Bakery in 28 races, as well as paint schemes for Aspen Dental and TaxAct for eight more races.
When her thoughts turn to racing, she may well ponder the suggestion that NASCAR cars are hard to drive not always because the crew chief isn't doing his job, but because they ARE simply hard to drive.
Not until she has that epiphany, Zipadelli suggests, will Patrick realize the extent of her potential. He cites as an example of 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano, who replaced Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2009 amid enormous hype but underachieved over four seasons and eventually moved to Penske Racing.
"It just took him a little while to get comfortable in the car and realize that, man, if it's going to be this loose here or there, I just have to figure out how to drive it," Zipadelli said. "There's a certain point where some of them get it like a light switch. And all of a sudden, Joey got it. His confidence is sky high and he's driving the heck out of these things and doing a phenomenal job.
Patrick needs to find that light switch, Zipadelli said, as well as a crew chief "she can talk to and somebody who can instill confidence in her."
"I think that's where the patience comes in, with Billy being very willing to talk to her about what we're going to do in practice, how we're going to (execute), and here's why, you know?" Zipadelli said. "Some of the things that, in all honestly, Daniel struggled with a little bit. He's so smart and so outside of everybody's realm that he's like, 'We do this just because this is how it works.' "But this is about relationships. If she had all the confidence in the world and was doing a better job, I'm not so sure Daniel and her would have done way better."
So, it's time to try another approach.
"She's still growing," Zipadelli said. "She needs to continue to grow and she needs to continue to progress. We've made a three-year commitment to Billy and to her, and we as a company expect better things."