NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Cliff Daniels Finding His Role as Leader While Kyle Larson Finds Success

Cliff Daniels has only been a NASCAR Cup Series crew chief for two drivers: Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson.

Five races into his inaugural campaign with Larson, Daniels earned his first career victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 7, and the new pairing has garnered four top-10 finishes in five races.

Daniels worked his way from being a mechanic for an ARCA Menards Series team all the way to a NASCAR Cup Series crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, earning a mechanical engineering degree from University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2010. His Cup Series career began as an engineer for Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2013 before moving to Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team in 2015, so he knows what it means to work for high-profile drivers and organizations at the sport’s highest echelon. That gave him a significant advantage heading into a relationship with Larson, who became a national headline in 2020 for his use of a racial slur during an iRacing event.

After taking over the No. 48 team in July 2019, Daniels has found what he believes are his most effective leadership traits. That process has led to immediate on-track success.

In his second full-time season at the helm of what is now the No. 5 team, Daniels spoke with Frontstretch ahead of the March 14 race at Phoenix Raceway about his early success, the transition process from Johnson to Larson and the background that drove an avid athlete to sit atop the pit box as an engineer and crew chief.

An edited version of our interview with Daniels is below:

Zach Sturniolo, Frontstretch: You’ve already had such immediate success with Kyle, [four] top 10s and just an excellent start to the season. Does that change any sort of plans that you had for the rest of the season? You’re obviously going out to try to win every week. But does success like this accelerate anything for you guys?

Daniels: Not really, and I’ve been asked that quite a number of times in the last week. I think, overall, our approach was to make sure we had the right plan in place to have the right foundation for our team for how we communicate with Kyle — learn from Kyle, learn Kyle himself and his tendencies. We’re only [a few] races in. We haven’t been to a short track yet. There’s a lot of things that we haven’t experienced together yet with him, so we still have a notebook that we need to build. I don’t think the time is right now for us to go be aggressive or different or change the path that’s worked out OK so far. We just need to keep building on that.

Sturniolo: We’re already a month into the season, but what was the transition from Jimmie Johnson last year to Kyle Larson this year like from your perspective? Was it any easier or more challenging than you anticipated, being that this was the first time you went from a crew chief of one driver to that of another?

Daniels: It definitely was a unique experience, and transition is almost probably too encompassing of a word. When Jimmie retired, and the way the world is nowadays, there’s just not a whole lot of interaction that we get to have in general out in the world because of COVID-19, quarantines, lockdowns and things like that. Unfortunately, after the Phoenix race at the end of the year, we didn’t get the chance to see Jimmie a whole lot. We saw him once in the offseason, and so that that book closed pretty quickly. And then all of a sudden, we had to start gearing up for Kyle. So there wasn’t a whole lot of crossover at all between the communication with either guy.

We knew Jimmie was going to go pursue the IndyCars and he had to do that and commit himself to that. And we had to go commit ourselves to learning Kyle and being with Kyle. So the one thing I would say is through it all is I am so thankful for the time that we’ve had with Jimmie, and for the many years that I worked with him and [longtime crew chief] Chad [Knaus] and to work with the best to learn from the best. I couldn’t be more fortunate. I couldn’t be more thankful.

And now with Kyle, his talent and his whole approach, he’s operating at such a high level. It’s really cool to have him in the position that we have him and our team is operating really well. The guys are on it every week so it’s exciting. Having Kyle was a good spark to us because it was sad to lose Jimmie. So now that we have the spark and we’ve had some success, it’s a lot of fun and [I] hope we keep it going.

Sturniolo: Some people still may not know just how attached to Hendrick Motorsports you are and your career has been. What has your personal journey through NASCAR been like that’s led you to where you are today?

Daniels: I came to Hendrick Motorsports [after time at RAB Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing], and of course working with Jimmie and Chad for five years, what a cool experience. Those two guys, they’re each other’s bread and butter really. They complement each other so well. Their success speaks for itself. Tough couple years the last few years, but we had to learn a lot of valuable lessons. And we did, we took them to heart and kept fighting. We kept grinding it out every week. Even when the results weren’t there, our team would always come together and work hard.

Through that whole journey, it taught me a lot. And as I moved along from being an engineer to being at the crew chief level, I certainly had some eye-opening experiences where I had to learn to lead well and not necessarily be the guy that was the player or the one making the move or doing the work or holding the wrench or this or that. But helping lead our guys and teach guys that were younger and needed to learn a few things, but [to] be more of a coach than to be a player. That was a learning experience for me. And I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great mentors and guys around me to teach me along the way, especially here at Hendrick Motorsports from Jimmie and Chad to [team owner] Mr. [Rick Hendrick], Jeff Andrews, Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson. There’s been a lot of guys to help me along the way.

Sturniolo: How would you describe yourself as a leader? And how do you feel your style of leadership best benefits the team?

Daniels: In my first period of time in the crew chief role, I was definitely aggressive in handling situations and trying to really push hard and push everyone really hard, to a point that I needed to take a step back and reevaluate that whole approach to learn more about our team and how to fit the puzzle pieces together a little bit better. And help guys reach their full potential and put more focus on the full scope of the team, versus just, ‘Hey, we’re going to this track, but we’re just going to focus on this right here.’

And maybe not everyone could could see the full picture or was living up to their potential. So I’ve definitely had to mature a lot in my role. And I’ve been making a point to do that and to learn from my team and to teach them things as we go and just make sure that we’re buttoned up across the board and everyone operates at 100%. I’m very thankful for the group of guys that we have because they’re pretty fantastic.

Sturniolo: As you look at what Kyle brings to this team, how do you feel like his skill set as a driver has benefited this race team? And also off the track, it appears there’s sincerity in everything he’s brought to the table since everything happened last year. What has he been like to work with both on and off the track so far?

Daniels: On track, having his talent just back in the Cup Series in general is a win, I think, for our sport. And then to have him at Hendrick Motorsports is a big one for us. And then to have him on our team is is another one yet, right? Very thankful for that. And I think for our team, I would say it’s a mix — probably 50-50 — half the guys on our team were around when we won races and championships with Jimmie and Chad. So having that experience of being in a high-profile environment with the highest of expectations, our guys have operated under that before. And the ones that haven’t have been together with the other half long enough that we all figure out a way to balance each other out. And to manage expectations and to manage pressure that comes with having somebody as talented and now as high-profile as Kyle is because away from Cup racing, he can step in a car, any week, any type of car and be competitive and be right there and winning. And now he’s doing that on the Cup side, which is really cool.

And then on the personal side, he is a great human being. He is sincere in everything that he’s done personally. After what happened last year, he’s been sincere and genuine and honest in what he’s done that he didn’t do with some tangible goal hanging out in front of him. Nobody was hanging this carrot in front of him, like, ‘if you do this, then you will receive this reward.’

He knew he had to go to work and rectify the situation, and he’s done that. He’s going to continue to do that, to reach out and be a part of the community and help folks learn and grow. It’s cool to see him do that, and I know it’s genuine because I know him very well. And still to come back in and race on a Sunday at the level that he does, it’s just incredible.

Sturniolo: I want to talk about you a little bit more personally here because a lot of people may not know you off the pit box. Do you ever get some time to kind of detach and relax a bit? And if so, how do you best utilize that free time?

Daniels: I try to. It’s tough in our environment. Nowadays, our sport is so competitive with the schedule the way it is and not having the opportunity to practice and qualify. Now, practicing, qualifying and a three-day weekend versus a one-day weekend does mean that you’re away from home and away from your family more, but it’s interesting because now, when we’re at the shop, there is that much more added pressure planning all the work that we do, all the prep work that we do at the shop because we don’t get any track time. We are digging hard into every detail to make sure our car is prepared well.

So free time is tough to come by, to directly answer your question. I enjoy spending a lot of time with my wife Shannon, our daughter Ivy. Ivy is about a year and a half old, and that’s a great, really cool experience. I’m so blessed to be a father and to have her. We want more kids — we’ll see — but we’re enjoying the parent journey right now with with Ivy and watching her grow so fast.

I’ve had a lot of hobbies over the years that I haven’t done in the last few years. I mean, I’ve always been a really active guy. I grew up playing sports, racing on my own. Anything from wakeboarding during the summertime to snowboarding in the in the wintertime. I’ve always ridden dirt bikes, a little bit of air scramble motocross stuff back in the day. So I’ve always been a really active guy. But with free time hard to come by and playing the dad role, it’s a lot of work, but I’m very thankful.

Sturniolo: Now I have to ask — which sports were you playing?

Daniels: I grew up playing soccer and baseball mostly. A little bit of pickup basketball, football here and there. And I’ve always just been a sports kind of guy. Like it didn’t matter what it was, I’d always want to play, whether it was in the neighborhood or in school or whatever. And then I got into racing, and the more I got into racing, the less the other sports kind of happened. But yeah, it was always fun to do.

Sturniolo: Do you recall if there was ever one particular tipping point that really moved the needle toward racing?

Daniels: I want to say it was either my first or second year racing bandoleros, so probably ’99. I think I had just won a race or two — I think it was like two races in a row. And I was on the all-star baseball team. There was a baseball game — I want to say it was like the championship baseball weekend for the all-star team. At the same time, we had a race, and because of my commitment to the baseball team, I missed the race, and I was devastated. Completely devastated. So from that point forward, racing definitely shifted to be the priority.

Sturniolo: You’ve been around the sport, you’ve watched this for long enough to know that everything goes in cycles. Do you feel like from what you’ve seen when this company was at its peak, do you feel like it has cycled back up to the top now? Certainly, it seems like the statistics are showing that. But does it feel that way in the shop?

Daniels: Yeah, the shop definitely has some of that feel. I mean, honestly, it’s too early to tell. It’s great, and we’re all very pleased with how our cars have been. But sometimes you see guys that start the year strong and slow down in the middle of the summer. So the focus now, yes, is to continue what we’re doing, but we want to make sure we have a full understanding of what’s underneath of our cars and make sure we can carry it forward down the stretch of the season. Ultimately, that’s what’s most important. If it’s a long year, it really is, and going into the playoffs, you need to be peaking then. So we’ve got to be smart about what we do, and I think the potential is there.

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