Editor’s Note: This story was published the Saturday before the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race. Kyle Larson won his 10th race of the season and the 2021 title on Sunday.
AVONDALE, Ariz. — When did Cliff Daniels know that his partnership with Kyle Larson had the makings of a record-setting championship run? There’s an easy answer, the Hendrick Motorsports crew chief says, but Daniels doesn’t seem big on giving those.
An overly simplistic view would point to the first of their nine NASCAR Cup Series victories together, a triumph at Las Vegas Motor Speedway back in March that marked just their fourth race as a driver-crew chief pairing. As with most things, though, Daniels dug deeper for a more introspective view.
Daniels traced the origins of their budding chemistry to a dusty December night at Millbridge Speedway in Rowan County, N.C., where Larson continued his mastery of the dirt-track bullrings in a midget-car feature just before making his return to the Cup Series in Hendrick’s No. 5 Chevrolet. For Daniels, who grew up racing primarily on the asphalt tracks of his home state of Virginia, he was admittedly playing out of position and soaking in a far different atmosphere than he was accustomed to. The learning experience from that day predated what he learned from that breakthrough Vegas victory.
“The way he and I communicated about what he had going on that day, and just the way he drove the car that day — he ultimately ended up winning, of course — kind of let me know that he and I could communicate no matter what environment we were in,” Daniels said, “because — again, that was very unfamiliar for me — that we can connect, communicate again a lot of the basics for building what we needed to get started this season. So then once the season got started and obviously all the Hendrick cars were running good and we were one of them. We just got to build on that.”
The details continue to matter just two-plus years into Daniels’ tenure as a Cup Series crew chief, a brief stint that’s already had plenty of turns and twists. He enters Sunday’s finale at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App/Peacock, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a chance to cap off one of stock-car racing’s greater seasons by guiding Larson to his first championship.
How he got there and how they continued to grow together, there’s depth to that answer as well. The details matter there, too.
Growing into the role
The situation that Daniels first stepped into was both prized and unenviable. Sure, his debut as a Cup Series crew chief came working with one of the sport’s most decorated champions in Jimmie Johnson. On the flip side, that assignment came with the charge to rejuvenate a sagging No. 48 team midstream, taking the job in late July 2019 with the hopes of sparking a late push to the playoffs.
Daniels had the pedigree, coming from a background as a racer at well-known Virginia tracks — South Boston, Langley, Southside — and growing into a capable race engineer. But working with a seven-time champion was a bright spotlight from the get-go. When they didn’t win and just missed out on two playoff berths in their season and a half together, Daniels said elements of self-doubt crept in.
“I think that was probably natural for anyone going through that, where you have arguably one of the best to ever do it, kind of toward the end of his career and you’re pushing yourself and the team and him so hard to try to make the results happen, make the success happen on track so that when you don’t get it, naturally it’s easy to look in the mirror and doubt yourself,” Daniels says, “which I, like I would imagine anybody else in this situation did or would do, but there were so many valuable lessons that I learned from Jimmie through the whole process, like there’s never been a moment that any of us could ever pick out of Jimmie Johnson’s career where he didn’t — on and off the track — carry himself like a true champion.
“Even when we had bad days at the race track, that’s how he carried himself. That’s how we raced every week was a high level of character, a high level of integrity.”
That character helped figure into the decisions made before the 2020 season about driver and crew chief pairings. Longtime crew chief Chad Knaus’ ascent to the new role of vice president of competition created a shuffle, and so did Johnson’s retirement, which opened the door for Larson in his multi-layered road back to NASCAR’s top level.
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Jeff Andrews, promoted late last year to executive vice president and general manager, was one of those in charge of getting the chemistry and performance right. The high-level discussions also involved team owner Rick Hendrick, team president Marshall Carlson, and soon-to-be vice chairman Jeff Gordon.
“There was just kind of an aura and a persona there about Cliff that you kind of know when someone is kind of your people, so to speak,” Andrews said of the personnel talks. “Obviously Cliff had spent a lot of time here, come up through our system. We had a lot of belief in him, a lot of confidence in him. We were willing to stand by him for quite some time and make sure that we were giving him the tools and the resources and the people, getting that all in place. Once we did that and got the right things behind him, insert Kyle Larson, you got some pretty good success there in their first year together.”
Steady atop the pit box
If there’s an exemplifying moment among the nine wins, it’s Larson’s improbable comeback during last month’s Round of 12 elimination race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. Electrical issues on the No. 5 Chevy midway through the race prompted a battery swap and a change-out of the alternator belt — not exactly minor surgery considering the stakes.
The title hopes plus the stockpile of playoff points that Larson had amassed in winning the regular-season championship were in danger of being frittered away. Instead of barking out orders and letting the urgency shake his decision-making, Daniels instead directed his team with clear, firm instructions with minimal swings toward emotional highs or lows.
With the deficit overcome, Larson charged back through the field and eventually celebrated in Victory Lane. That day kicked off their second three-race win streak of the season.
“He has that same temperament of wanting everything perfect, but he does not get rattled,” Hendrick said in the days leading up to Championship Weekend, noting the similarities of Daniels’ approach to Knaus’. “… You don’t know how a guy’s going to act under fire till you put him in that position. He just is very methodical. He spends a lot of time with Kyle. When I told Kyle that was going to be his crew chief, Kyle didn’t know he hadn’t won any races. As soon as they started working together, Kyle loved what he could see in Cliff.”
Those characteristics have helped shape Larson’s approach in this first season together. Larson said he has come to appreciate Daniels’ communication style, adding that the emotions of other crew chiefs he’s had sometimes influenced him — and not always in the best way.
“I think Cliff would honestly probably click with anybody, just because his leadership skills are so good and everybody respects him,” Larson says. “I think he’s got a level of respect that he has within that keeps everybody motivated, and he treats others the right way. He’s smart, young, dedicated and yeah, he’s just really, really good at what he does. He’s like to me the definition of a Cup Series crew chief. I’ve never played football, but I imagine him as being somewhat similar to a professional football, basketball, whatever coach. I think that’s a good trait.”
Primed for a title shot
The statistical accomplishments that Daniels’ team has tallied this year rank among the all-time best — nine wins, 2,472 laps led, 25 top-10 finishes in 35 races. Larson has done his best to shrug off the label of championship favorite in the week leading up to the finale, but the numbers have a certain pop to make the case without him.
Hendrick has appreciated those accolades as well, but has seen Daniels mature professionally with his preparations and his composure atop the pit box. Daniels has been in the Hendrick Motorsports pipeline as a race engineer since the 2015 season, but his growth as a crew chief in such a short time has shown wisdom beyond his 33 years.
“I’ve been amazed at his ability to call a race, keep calm, build a pit crew, do all the things that he’s done this year, and doesn’t get rattled,” Hendrick says. “Some of the decisions he makes, you would think he’s been crew chief for five or six years. He’s a real talent. He’s built a really good team.”
That team has a chance for a crowning achievement in Sunday’s season-ending race as Larson battles teammate and defending champ Chase Elliott along with Joe Gibbs Racing hopefuls Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. for the Cup Series title. Another victory would place Larson not only among the elite roll call of series champions, but also in the stratosphere of drivers to have won 10 or more races in a season since NASCAR’s modern era began. That list is populated only by a select few NASCAR Hall of Famers.
Could Daniels have envisioned that level of success before the season started? There’s no easy answer there, either.
“I would have probably said, ‘No way,’ ” Daniels says. “That’s pretty big numbers, but we’ve been really fortunate with the timing of this year to get Kyle back in our car, to have all four teammates at Hendrick Motorsports work closer together now than we probably ever have, have had great cars, great bodies and chassis and engines and all the things that it takes, and to have the four teams working together. So well, it makes it special, makes it doable, makes it foreseeable to know that you can achieve the success and keep it going.”