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Atop the Pit Box: Cliff Daniels (Part I)

Cliff Daniels is literally “Atop the Pit Box” for his return on The Podium Finish. (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

CONCORD, N.C. — Cliff Daniels may be one of the younger crew chiefs in the NASCAR Cup Series but his experience and savvy speak volumes. The Smithfield, Virginia native is a confident, focused leader with the veteran presence prevalent with the greats who have sat or stood atop the pit box.

At age 35, Daniels has the complete respect and attention of his crewmates and Kyle Larson, driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. He embodies what it means to be a part of the family centric Hendrick Motorsports organization.

Admittedly, Daniels realizes that he can be intense but it is due to his passion for racing and success. Much like Larson in the driver’s seat and the over-the-wall crew who reel off pit stops in nine seconds, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte alum wants to win and thrive each weekend.

Although Daniels is likened to Chad Knaus and Ray Evernham, truth be told, he is his own individual leader. He understands what Larson experiences in the car having been a driver at the short tracks in Virginia and North Carolina.

As Daniels discussed earlier this year, he shared his genesis with motorsports and the path that led him to the No. 5 team. For newer fans, he explained his role as the crew chief of the No. 5 team in great detail.

Since that late spring interview, Daniels and his No. 5 team clinched a Playoff berth thanks to his wins at Richmond and Martinsville. More importantly, he was one of the catalysts behind the No. 5 team’s strong postseason start with a Cook Out Southern 500 and a berth into the Round of 12.

While the Round of 12 has been a bit difficult for Daniels, Larson and the No. 5 brigade, they are calm, confident and prepared. This team has persevered through the ups and downs to fight for another Cup championship.

Prior to the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 400 at Texas Motor Speedway, Daniels stopped by The Podium Finish‘s war wagon to talk about the No. 5 team’s postseason efforts, motivating the crew and adapting to life with the Next Gen stock car.

Here is Part I of “Atop the Pit Box: Cliff Daniels” in article format!

Rob Tiongson: Welcome back to another edition of “Atop the Pit Box” here on The Podium Finish. I’m Rob Tiongson and I’m pleased to welcome back crew chief of the No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro Zl1, Cliff Daniels, of course, championship winning crew chief. And he’s going for a second one this year, folks.

Before we get started, Cliff, how are you doing?

By all means, Cliff Daniels appreciates his hardy No. 5 pit crew to keep Kyle Larson in contention each weekend. (Photo: Wayne Riegle | The Podium Finish)

Cliff Daniels: Yeah, we’re doing okay. It’s been a good start to the Playoffs for us. We’ve had some good results and left a little bit on the table that we wanted some more. But the team has been doing great.

Everybody on our Chevy has just been working hard. All the great folks at Hendrick Motorsports giving us great race cars and with a little bit of momentum that we have right now, we’re focused on just keeping it going. This next round is a tough round, but I think we’re ready.

Tiongson: I think so, too. And as I said to Kyle recently, it’s just incredible that you guys had this average finish of 2.33 in the Round of 16. I joked to him, “Yeah, you could do the same thing again this round.” But obviously it’s not that easy with these tracks, right?

Daniels: Yeah, nothing is easy. Come Playoff time in the Cup Series, while we’re very pleased and grateful for the results that we had in the Round of 16, I can’t help but look at Kansas and think that we kind of gave that one away a bit and that was really my fault. With a call to stay out on 10-lap tires when we should have pitted, that kind of really flipped our race around.

So, I think there’s a little bit more on the table for us. But to your point, looking ahead, man, the Round of 12 is tough. Texas is a tough place. Talladega, such a wild card. And even the ROVAL is a great race. I think it’s a great race for the fans, great race for the competitors. But it is tough in so many, so many different things can happen there.

So, we enjoy the challenge ahead of us and certainly got to make sure we’re buttoned up and ready to go.

Tiongson: As I like to say, when you’re having to look forward to something, man, they’re making you work really hard to get to the weekend. And this is what the Round of 12 is all about, because as you mentioned, we have unique racetracks.

We’ll start off with Texas, actually, which is where we’re going to next. And drivers I’ve talked to this week have said it’s a really distinct track. You have Turns 1 and 2 where you brake a little bit. And then they try to hold it wide open and Turns 3 and 4.

As a crew chief, what makes Texas such a difficult track to prepare for?

All the homework and preparation nearly by Cliff Daniels and the No. 5 team showed with a fast, strong car at Texas. (Photo: John Arndt | The Podium Finish)

Daniels: Since they reconfigured Texas, going into 2017, the track every year seems to add its own few new characteristics just because of age. The aggregate of the asphalt is getting a little bit older, so there’s just a little bit less grip than what goes by year by year. The pavement continues to settle a little bit into the foundation of it.

The bumps get a little bit bigger each year. Plus, to your point, just the unique layout where Turns 1 and 2 is a lot tighter radius, a lot flatter banking angle than 3 and 4 is a lot bigger turn radius with a lot more banking.

So your car setup is pretty unique for Texas as compared to some other standard mile and a half type race tracks. It’s a challenge to get both ends right. It certainly makes for an exciting race. Texas has probably gotten a bad rap for not having exciting racing.

And it’s hard to pass. But I think now that the track has a little bit more character to it and some years have gone by since the repave. I think it presents a great, all around mix of what it takes to be good there. And it’s really easy for the teams and crew chiefs to get one aspect of the track right.

Your car can be really good in 1 and 2 and then you’re too loose in 3 and 4 or you can be really good in 3 and 4 and then you’re actually too tight in 1 and 2. I think… just that dynamic of kind of mixing up both ends and the challenge of trying to get your balance right presents pretty good racing.

So honestly, we’re looking forward to the weekend. We know it’s going to be a challenge, but Texas, it’s a fun place. We like it.

Tiongson: And it shows in your track record. Since you’ve worked with Kyle, you have wins in 2021 with the All-Star Race and then of course, the fall race. Last year, you got a ninth place finish. Could have been better, but it was kind of an eventful race, so you have that baseline working for you.

But then Goodyear brings his new element of a different tire compound, which y’all have not seen yet this year. How much of that is a curveball for you guys when you look at your notes, especially with the Next Gen car and you’re going, “Kyle, we have a different tire compound, so I need you to take care of these tires.” Is that going to be a factor as well?

Daniels: Well, it’s actually the same tread compound. The compound is the same with the rubber that meets the road is the same. It is a much different construction, though, And we spent a lot of time this week trying to get educated on the differences in the construction.

There was a team Goodyear tire test that I want to say the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin), the No. 22 (Joey Logano) and the No. 99 (Daniel Suárez) went to. So, we have just a little bit of notes from that for the industry. Then there was an OEM wheel force test where Chevrolet did a great job of going to execute that test. So, we have a little bit of information on the track now with this tire.

It’s still not the same as what it’s going to be like when we get there. With all the Cup cars and the speeds that we’re going to run and, the margins that you have to work within to be fast, it is different. It is a little bit of a curveball trying to make sure that we understand that really well. But it’s going to be the same for everyone, even the guys that got to be there during the test.

We heard about those track conditions and what they were, which in all honesty, are going to be a bit different track conditions than what we’re going to see this weekend. Like I’ve said, we’re looking forward to the challenge from just another year of age on the track plus the different tire construction that we have on the right side tire.

And we’ve just got to be a student of the game as the weekend goes, make the right adjustments on the car and just take it as it comes.

Tiongson: Just gotta roll with the punches because if you do that, then you can pretty much prepare for anything that comes your way, which has been the M.O. for the No. 5 team since you and Kyle worked together and wouldn’t surprise me to see you guys running towards the front of the field this weekend.

One of the things I think that’s made you guys work so well, especially since last year and a half, maybe almost two years now, with this Next Gen car. How have you and your No. 5 team been preparing for these fleet of cars that you now have compared to last year when you know we had the parts shortage situation going on?

Daniels: Yeah, I think just having the experience under our belt of working with the car now and there’s a lot of collective intelligence within the four Hendrick cars and our stable, plus all the folks that are working all day every day to try to further our understanding and continue to squeeze the juice of speed for our cars.

Overall, I think we have to look as much at the things that we’ve done wrong over the year and a half with the Next Gen car as much as we look at the things that we did right. The unfortunate part of competition is if you do it right, when you fail, you can learn just as much from when you fail as when you win or when you have a great day.

So we’ve tried to be very self-aware and very studious to trends of the car, trends of the tracks, trends of development that we’ve seen to make sure that we’re learning at the right pace and we’re growing at the right pace.

There are certainly wins along the way of growing and those are great. And you really have to make sure you capture within a win or within a good weekend what you did well. But it’s equally as important to capture things that you do wrong. And when you do fail, when you do miss the setup or the balance or whatever it may be, race strategy, making sure you pull away from that, the value of the miss and make sure you just increase your knowledge and understanding of what is going to be the next time you encounter that.

So that’s kind of been our mindset since the new car came along. We had high expectations for ourselves. We realized along the way that we weren’t going to be perfect every week. And we’ve just tried to continue to improve on our process, the way we communicate, the way we understand the car and ourselves every week and. I’m really proud of all the guys on the team.

We’re a pretty young group overall. We’ve got some young engineers and young mechanics. But for as young as we are, there’s so much talent on our team. And of course, Kyle himself, he’s just into his 30s. His talent speaks for itself. But the way that he’s executing races and understanding what he needs out of the car, he’s very mature in that. And so, there’s a lot of value in having all of the youth on our team, plus the talent and couple that with the experience that we’re getting now. Everyone’s doing a great job.

Tiongson: It just sounds like there’s a lot of positive energy that goes around the campus and even at the race weekends and in the pits or in the garage area. It just seems like that’s what has been the key to success for you guys.

Of all the drivers you’ve worked with, what has made you and Kyle work well and click the way you guys have been doing since you guys met together or work together in 2021?

No doubt, Cliff Daniels and his No. 5 crewmates work together to achieve maximum results. (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Daniels: I think both of us just have a very pure passion for racing, the way that we both see what it takes to compete very similarly. He’s very critical of himself, but in a healthy way, in a way of always learning to get better.

I’m very critical of myself, in a healthy way, of always learning to get better. We both are OK with holding each other accountable. There’s times where the car is off and (say), “Hey, man, this just isn’t what I need.” He’ll tell me that. That’s OK. That’s good. I understand that. I value that honesty from him.

Likewise, if I think he’s made a mistake or we need to approach a set of tires differently than what may be natural for him, and we need to work on his line, then we work the car to pair with that adjustment. He’s OK with that honesty from me as well. So just the way that we see our own attack for the way I lead the team and the way I’m trying to help the team set up the car for him and the way that he’s leading himself for what he wants to have out of the car and the way that he wants to drive the car.

There’s a lot of trust in that. There’s a lot of great communication in that it’s not always easy, but it shouldn’t be to compete at a high level. It’s not going to be easy. And you have to challenge each other, which we do. I think that always brings about just a really healthy, very grounded energy between the two of us where I’m not going to walk around and be like, “Oh yeah, our car’s great just because Kyle Larson’s going fast in it.”

I’ve been around long enough to know that part of the reason our car goes fast is because we have Kyle Larson in it. It doubles down on my responsibility to make sure that we’re giving someone like him and giving him everything that we can to give him what he needs because he has so much talent to showcase when he has a car that drives good, and we own that. I own that as the leader of the team and the crew to get it right.

Without being redundant on myself of what I’m saying, I think just a lot of that chemistry, a lot of our communication, our trust and our approach is what keeps us going. It’s what has gotten us to this point and certainly going to carry us in the future.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Cliff Daniels for taking time to catch up with The Podium Finish’s “Atop the Pit Box” series. Also, special thanks to Autumn Darracq of Hendrick Motorsports for her kindness and support.

Stay tuned for Part II of Atop the Pit Box: Cliff Daniels ahead of Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL! A podcast and video version of Cliff’s interview will be available later this week!

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing. Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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