AVONDALE, Arizona – When did Cliff Daniels know his partnership with Kyle Larson had the makings of a championship record? There’s an easy answer, says the Hendrick Motorsports crew chief, but Daniels doesn’t seem too keen on giving them away.

An overly simplistic view would point to the first of their nine NASCAR Cup Series victories together, a triumph at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March that marked only their fourth race as a driver’s crew chief. As with most things, however, Daniels dug deeper for a more introspective view.

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Daniels traced the origins of their nascent chemistry to a dusty December night at Millbridge Speedway in Rowan County, NC, where Larson continued his mastery of the track arenas in a miniature car just before making his return to the Cup Series in Hendrick’s Chevrolet n ° 5. For Daniels, who grew up running mostly on the asphalt tracks in his home state of Virginia, he was admittedly playing out of position and soaking up a much different atmosphere than he was used to. Today’s learning experience predates what he learned from that decisive Vegas victory.

“The way he and I communicated about what was going on that day, and just the way he drove the car that day – he ultimately won, of course – kinda got me. let him know that he and I could communicate no matter what. environment we were in, ”said Daniels,“ because – again, it was very unfamiliar to me – that we can connect, communicate again a lot of the foundation to build what we needed to start this season. So once the season started, all of the Hendrick cars were running fine and we were one of them. We just have to build on that. “

Details continue to matter just over two years after Daniels began his tenure as Cup Series team manager, a brief stint that has already had plenty of turns and twists. He competes in Sunday’s final at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC / NBC Sports App / Peacock, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a chance to complete one of the greatest seasons of stock car racing while guiding Larson towards his first championship.

How he got there and how they continued to grow together, there is depth to this answer as well. Here too, the details matter.

Growing up in the role

The situation Daniels first entered was both popular and unenviable. Of course, his debut as a Cup Series team manager came working with one of the sport’s most decorated champions in Jimmie Johnson. On the flip side, that mission came with the load of rejuvenating a sagging No.48 team midway through, taking the job in late July 2019 in the hopes of triggering a late push to the playoffs.

Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images

Daniels had the pedigree, coming from experience racing on well-known tracks in Virginia – South Boston, Langley, Southside – and becoming a competent racing engineer. But working with a seven-time champion was a highlight from the start. When they failed to win and narrowly missed two playoff spots in their season and a half together, Daniels said elements of self-doubt crept in.

“I think it was probably natural for anyone going through this, where you have arguably one of the best at it, a little bit towards the end of his career and you push yourself and the team and him so hard. to try to get results to happen, success to happen on the right track so that when you don’t get it, it’s naturally easy to look at yourself in the mirror and doubt yourself, ”says Daniels, “which as I imagine anyone else in this situation did or would, but there were so many valuable lessons I learned from Jimmie throughout the process, as if there never was a moment none of us could ever choose in Jimmie Johnson’s career where he didn’t – on and off the track – behaves like a real champion.

“Even when we had bad days on the race track, that’s how he behaved. This is how we ran every week with a high level of character, a high level of integrity.

This character has helped figure in the decisions made ahead of the 2020 season regarding the pairs of drivers and team managers. The rise of longtime team chief Chad Knaus to the new role of vice president of competition created a reshuffle, as did Johnson’s retirement, which opened the door for Larson on his multi-level path to return. at the highest level of NASCAR.

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Jeff Andrews, promoted late last year to executive vice president and general manager, was one of those responsible for getting the right chemistry and the right performance. The high-level discussions also involved team owner Rick Hendrick, team president Marshall Carlson and future vice president Jeff Gordon.

“There was just a kind of aura and a personality about Cliff that you kind of know when someone is kind of your people, so to speak,” Andrews said of the staff interviews. “Obviously Cliff had spent a lot of time here, through our system. We had a lot of confidence in him, a lot of confidence in him. We were prepared to support him for a while and make sure we gave him the tools, the resources and the people, to put it all in place. Once we’ve done that and got the right things behind him insert Kyle Larson, you had some pretty good success there in their first year together.

Stable at the top of the pit

If there’s one exemplary moment among the nine wins, it’s Larson’s unlikely return in the 12th round playoff race last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. Electrical issues on the No.5 Chevrolet midway through the race resulted in a battery swap and alternator belt change – not really a minor surgery given the stakes.

The title hopes as well as the store of playoff points that Larson had amassed by winning the regular season championship were in danger of being wasted. Instead of barking orders and letting urgency hamper his decision-making, Daniels instead led his team with clear, firm instructions with minimal wobbling up and down emotional highs or lows.

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With the deficit overcome, Larson recovered and finally celebrated in Victory Lane. That day kicked off his second three-game winning streak of the season.

“He has the same temperament of wanting everything to be perfect, but he doesn’t let himself be shaken,” Hendrick said in the days leading up to the Championship weekend, noting the similarities between Daniels ‘approach and Knaus’ one. “… You don’t know how a guy is going to act under fire until you put him in that position.” He’s just very methodical. He spends a lot of time with Kyle. When I told Kyle he was going to be his foreman, 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.

These characteristics helped shape Larson’s approach in that first season together. Larson said he came to appreciate Daniels’ style of communication, adding that the emotions of the other team leaders he had at times had swayed him – and not always in the best way.

“Honestly, I think Cliff would probably click with anyone, just because his leadership skills are so good and everyone respects him,” Larson said. “I think he has a level of respect that he has that keeps everyone motivated, and he treats others the right way. He’s smart, young, dedicated and yes he’s really, really good at what he does. As for me, he is the definition of a Cup Series team manager. I’ve never played football, but I imagine him kinda like a professional football coach, basketball, whatever he is. I think this is a good trait.

Ready for a title shot

The statistical achievements Daniels’ team have had this year rank among the best of all time – nine wins, 2,472 laps led, 25 top-10s in 35 races. Larson did his best to shake off the championship favorite tag in the week leading up to the final, but the numbers have some pop to argue without him.

Sean Gardner |  Getty Images
Sean Gardner | Getty Images

Hendrick enjoyed these accolades as well, but watched Daniels mature professionally with his preparations and his poise at the top of the pit. 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 was amazed at his ability to organize a race, keep his cool, put together a pit crew, do everything he’s done this year and stick to it,” said Hendrick. “Some of the decisions he makes, you’d think he’s been a team manager for five or six years. He’s a real talent. He has built a very good team.

This team has a chance to crown Sunday’s season-ending race as Larson faces off against teammate and defending champion Chase Elliott with Joe Gibbs Racing hopes Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. for the Cup Series title. Another victory would place Larson not only among the elite of series champions, but also in the stratosphere of drivers who have won 10 or more races in a season since the start of the modern era of NASCAR. This list is only completed by a few selected members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Could Daniels have envisioned this level of success before the start of the season? There is also no easy answer.

“I probably would have said ‘No way’,” Daniels says. “Those are pretty big numbers, but we’ve been really lucky with the timing this year to bring Kyle back to our car, so the four teammates at Hendrick Motorsports are working more closely together now than we’ve probably ever done, we’ve had great cars, great bodyshells, chassis and engines and whatever it takes, and getting the four teams to work together. So well, that makes it special, makes it doable, it’s predictable to know that you can achieve and maintain success. ”

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