CONCORD, N.C. — With their backs against the wall to make the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team needed new life.
That came in the form of a crew chief change atop the pit box, promoting race engineer Cliff Daniels to replace Kevin Meendering after 21 races at the helm for Johnson.
The explanation was simple for Johnson, who is 17th in points and 12 points behind the playoff cutline with five races to go in the regular season.
“We have to act now is the bottom line,” Johnson said. “We don’t have any time to waste.”
But Johnson made it a point to reiterate that Meendering, now set to assume a senior competition role within the organization, did nothing wrong to result in the drastic shakeup.
“We’re always trying to figure out how to make our team better,” Johnson said. “What’s tricky is when it boils down to people and needing to make a change. It’s never easy. It’s never fun.”
This season isn’t the first time Johnson and Daniels have worked closely together. Daniels played a role in Johnson’s record-tying championship season in 2016 as an engineer for then-crew chief Chad Knaus.
“Coming back and being ingrained with the team and those levels of communication, we did in a lot of ways pick up where they left off,” Daniels said. “In some new ways — and I’ve commented to him several times — his fire is so intense right now. The level he is trying to perform, the level we know the team needs to perform is all there. We just have to execute it properly.”
While Daniels has no prior experience as a crew chief, it’s the instant connection with the 31-year-old that invigorates Johnson in his quest for an eighth title.
“In this instance, with Cliff coming back at Sonoma, there was just such a spark that he brought,” Johnson said. “As the weeks went on, I noticed, outside people noticed, I think our fans have even noticed. Management even noticed and it was something we felt like we need to pursue to give ourselves the best chance to make the playoffs and have a shot at eight this year.”
Johnson noted that initial talks regarding the move began roughly one week ago. But for Daniels, he didn’t receive official word until a text message from competition director Jeff Andrews on Monday morning, just hours before Hendrick Motorsports made the final decision public knowledge.
Mere days before Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the pair have to figure out a plan for a very technical road course where pit strategy notoriously comes into play. With a cool nature that mirrors his driver’s persona, however, Daniels is ready to make something happen.
“We will absolutely have a plan that we’ll try to execute through the race,” Daniels said. “With that plan, you have to have contingencies, of course. But with the resources that we have here at Hendrick Motorsports, the recent success we’ve had at road courses. … We have so many factors we can pull from to operate from a position of strength. It’s just going to be on us to execute throughout the weekend.”
Johnson echoed the confidence.
“With the history that Cliff and I have, I know we’ll be able to come to the track and really up our game and hopefully get the job done.”