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Atop the Pit Box: Cliff Daniels (Part II)

Cliff Daniels surveys the situation for Kyle Larson. (Photo: Dylan Nadwodny | The Podium Finish)

CONCORD, N.C. — Cliff Daniels may be an intense individual when it comes to preparing for and leading the No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 team. Much like a head coach for a pro sports team, he oversees the overall picture for Kyle Larson, his pit crew and the women and men who battle each week for race wins and the NASCAR Cup Series championship.

However, Daniels realizes he can let loose here and there, showcasing he can be a good sport when his team teases him for his steely eyed focus. Then again, he is the first to hold himself accountable as each individual on the team does to achieve maximum results throughout the 38 weeks of the Cup season.

There is no denying that Daniels is a born leader and a great fit for Larson and his crew who accompany him at the track and those working at the shop. He genuinely cares deeply for each individual while keeping a balanced approach, values he learned from team owner Rick Hendrick.

As Daniels shares in the second and concluding part of his “Atop the Pit Box” interview segment, Hendrick reminds his teams to have an even keel approach. Likewise, he emphasizes the importance of familial bonds within the organization and the teams that are at the shop and track, working toward strengthening bonds while resolving any potential concerns like mature adults.

It may be a long way from the short track racing days for Daniels but he applies his experiences as a driver and engineer to be one of the top crew chiefs in NASCAR Cup Series competition. The 35-year-old is a prime example of an individual who seamlessly fits into his role and evolves as an individual and leader.

In Part I of Daniels’ interview, he discussed about the No. 5 team’s Round of 16 efforts and how his team is adapting to the Next Gen stock car in its second full-time season. Now, he brings a closer look to the team’s dynamic at the track and the shop along with his old school demeanor that is faultless and relatable.

Now, here is Part II of “Atop the Pit Box: Cliff Daniels” in article format!

Rob Tiongson: Cliff, I’m sure there are times that you have to motivate Kyle and sometimes motivate the pit crew when they’ve made mistakes. Kyle may hit the wall in Turn 4 from running so high or the pit crew may have had a slow pit stop.

How important is it to motivate the troops around you even if you feel the same way that they do?

By far, Cliff Daniels and Kyle Larson work as a dynamic duo while working to bring out the best in each other and their No. 5 team. (Photo: Christopher Vargas | The Podium Finish)

Cliff Daniels: I think some of it for me, naturally… I have a very intense personality. Kyle makes fun of me for it, and that’s OK. And the team gets to pick on me about it, but with having a group… we have a lot of youth on our team. And with the youth, we have a lot of talent on our team.

The way I see it, it’s OK for me to have the intense personality of holding us to a high standard and holding us to an expectation that we have of ourselves because there’s a lot of collective buy-in from our team of setting the standard of meeting our own standards of how we compete.

When you have a group that is assembled together with a very like mindset, very high expectations and very high potential, that’s a great combination. And so, it’s my job to kind of foster that with all of them.

Even when I get made fun of for being too intense or whatever it is, I’ve learned to be comfortable with that. I’ve learned to be comfortable with the guys giving me a hard time of how seriously I take things or how intense I can be about things.

But I think they also respect that. And I certainly have to hold myself accountable to doing what’s right for the collective good of the team and for the individuals. And when you handle teammates on an individual level, it does take a different approach per person.

And that’s where I’ve kind of had to evolve as a person and as a leader to make sure I’m there and I’m being, being a good mentor and a good leader to each individual and to the collective good of the team. Through that comes a lot of respect that we have for each other comes a lot of trust.

Look, we still get to have fun of making fun of each other, you know, through some of these moments and on the backside of a tough moment or a tough situation where I’ve done something wrong or Kyle has done something wrong, made a mistake, the pit crew’s made a mistake, whatever it may be.

We absolutely have the tough conversations. And then a couple hours later, we’re kind of able to poke fun at each other, you know, through what some of that is. And I think there’s a lot of growth in that.

There’s a lot of growth in the honest, difficult conversations. But still knowing that we have the camaraderie, we have the relationship within our team and kind of the family vibe within our team that, “Hey, we’re still all in this together. There may have been a mistake, there may have been a miss, whatever it is, but we’re going to be men and talk about it and be tough. And on the backside of it, we’re going to be stronger because of it.” So, we try to keep that mindset and keep it fresh and keep it healthy and keep it moving.

Certainly, if it weren’t for Kyle, for the great guys on our on our pit crew, on our road crew, shop crew, all the guys that make up the No. 5 team that are very high character individuals, very high talent individuals, a lot of energy… if it weren’t for what that collective group is, we wouldn’t have the culture that we have.

We wouldn’t have the potential that we have. And that’s not just because of me and that’s not just because of Kyle. It’s not just because of any individual. We just overall have a great group and that’s a lot of fun to be a part of.

Tiongson: The cohesion that you describe… I think you just said the one word that caught my attention – family. Some folks in sports say, well, that’s a load of crock when people say that you can have families in sports. But the way you describe that, you guys sound like a great unit of brothers who work together.

I think one other intangible that I’ve never brought up with you is the factor of Mr. H. And I’ve been curious about this over the years with you. What’s been the most important or best advice that Mr. H. Has given to you since you’ve joined the Hendrick organization?

Whether with a big hat or not, Rick Hendrick commands respect from Cliff Daniels and those within the Hendrick organization. (Photo: Dylan Nadwodny | The Podium Finish)

Daniels: There are so many positive qualities that Mr. H embodies every single day. I don’t know that we have time in this conversation for me to cover all of them. I think that kind of goes without saying, but there’s a couple that I could speak on.

The one thing that Mr. Hendrick really conveys to his people more than anything else is that we are a family of Hendrick Motorsports. We’re going to treat each other that way with the respect, the trust, the honesty.

Of course, it’s part of life and it’s part of competition that there are going to be mistakes, there’s going to be friction, there’s going to be pain and growth. But through that, that’s when you really have to embrace who we are as a family of Hendrick Motorsports, embrace each other, know that we’re all wearing the same badge on our on our shirt.

And that’s where you come out of those difficult, challenging times, adversity, so to speak, where you come out stronger. And that’s what holds the potential within our company, within the great people of our company, to go do great things. And Mr. Hendrick talks about that really all the time, that it’s going to take all of us.

We’re all in this together. We’re going to be a family together. We’re going to work together. And there’s nothing that’s going to stop us from working together no matter what on track thing may happen between two teammates or what cross words somebody may say at the shop or after race. We’re going to talk through it. We’re going to handle it like professionals and like a family. We’re going to be better because of it and we’re just going to keep moving forward.

That is such an important, overarching, quality of mindset that Mr. Hendrick brings to the company that’s so important. And then another one that is kind of twofold to me. There’s two different parts here. One of it is he talks a lot about servant leadership, making sure that the crew chiefs, the company managers, we’re always looking out for the folks that are doing the work, that are grinding the hours, doing all the little things that it takes to put special race cars on track and to really operate at a special high level.

We have a responsibility as leaders to make sure we’re catering to that.

And then with that comes a dose of humility. He said it like this before. When you’re winning, you’re not as good as you think you are. And when you’re losing, you’re not as bad as you think you are. That’s a pretty healthy mindset to kind of keep you grounded, right? To know that “Hey, when we’re winning, there’s always room to improve.”

There’s an element of humility that needs to come with that. But when you’re losing, don’t get too dejected. Don’t get too down on yourself or down on your people. There’s always a healthy mindset to kind of keep the extremes in check.

And that is directly from Mr. Hendrick’s leadership and the messages like that that he conveys to us. So, when I think about what he teaches us and what he brings to us all the time here at Hendrick Motorsports, those are the things that I just mentioned that really stand out. And honestly, it’s a blessing to be part of. It’s a blessing to have a leader like that is so good to his people, empowers his people so much, gives us so much flexibility to work within team building and growth, knowing that there’s going to be mistakes along the way.

But we know that if we make a mistake one time or two times, he’s not just going to come block us up on upside of the head. He’s going to help us grow through that. Of course, you can’t continue to make the same mistakes and grow, but he’s always going to be there to help us grow. And there’s a lot of that Hendrick family mindset the way we all work together that’s so critical to that.

Tiongson: I really like that. And it sounds like it’s about having an even keel mindset is what I took away from that. And it just goes to show that he’s been able to impart that so that you can tell your folks that you work with about what you’ve learned and what they’ve heard.

Not to put you on the spotlight, my friend, but what would it mean for you if you could win your second career Cup series championship as a crew chief knowing that it’s a 75th anniversary season of NASCAR?

Daniels: Great question. I understand why you want to ask the question. I think just being a little bit of an old school racer, I always have a little bit of superstition of talking about things in advance.

So, I’m not going to and we’ll see how the year plays out. I’ll make you a deal. If the year plays out a certain way, I will be happy to answer the question if that were the case.

Tiongson: That’s fair. No, I totally respect that. I kind of think of what Ray Evernham feels like when a reporter like me would talk to him on the last lap. He’s like, “No cameras, no microphones. Just let me…” I get it. It’s like a perfect game. Don’t talk about it.

Daniels: There you go. (laughs)

Tiongson: That’s fair. Yeah, well. Well, Cliff, before I let you go, and I had a great time talking to you again, do you have anything you want to say to your fans and the No. 5 team and to the fans at The Podium Finish?

Without a doubt, Cliff Daniels appreciates the lifeline of the NASCAR scene – the fans. (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Daniels: Yeah. I just want to thank you for having me on here. I know you’ve had Kyle on here before, and you always do a great job of talking to folks in the racing industry.

So, thank you for what you do and kind of showcasing this to the fans. And then, it’s been really special for us lately as time has gone by to be with Kyle and to be with the No. 5 Team. There are so many fans that we see at the racetrack that are wearing the No. 5 Gear, the No. 5 Swag, always stopping by to say “Hi.”

We are so appreciative of that because to be in the sport, I think a fundamental understanding of being part of this sport is that the fans are the lifeblood of the sport. If it weren’t for the fans, then then what we do just isn’t possible.

At the end of the day, we have a job working on race cars and working in racing, which is just a dream come true in itself. But so much of that is driven from and led by the fans.

So genuinely thank you to all the No. 5 team supporters and all the NASCAR fans. Even if you don’t like the No. 5 Team, thank you for supporting our sport because you know that that what that is what lets us do what we love doing and get to be a part of it, which is pretty special. And we never take that for granted. So, thanks to you and thanks to all the fans.

Tiongson: Absolutely. It’s always our pleasure.

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.

Check out the podcast and video versions of Cliff’s interview right now!

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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