Much is made about the big race bonafides of Kyle Larson but not near enough about the resume crew chief Cliff Daniels is starting to piece together in just five seasons atop the pit box at the highest level.
Daniels, the former Late Model Stock driver turned engineer, is just 35 years old and already has one of the most decorated Cup Series careers imaginable. He has 16 victories, all with Larson over the past three seasons, but has certainly made them all count.
Those victories include the Coca-Cola 600, Bristol Night Race, All-Star Races at Texas and North Wilkesboro, a Cup championship and now the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Sure, he is paired with one of the most naturally gifted racers ever at the New York Yankees of the Cup Series in Hendrick Motorsports but there is a reason he was atop the pit box shortly after his 30th birthday and entrusted with the legacy of Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48.
Johnson made significant strides back to the front once he was paired with the young engineer too. The case could be made that Daniels is every bit the wünderkind racing prodigy at his job as Larson.
It’s not even just from a mechanical engineering standpoint, a skill set that today’s spec car has significantly marginalized, but more so from the leadership traits that Daniels offers Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 5 team.
Those attributes are well-documented, how Daniels takes even the most stressful moments for Larson, and always seems to have the right things to say to keep his driver focused and productive. The most memorable, or quintessential of those moments came last year in the Coca-Cola 600, and serves as their team identity.
Larson had grazed the wall, spun out, caught fire and lost all their track position due to a slow pit stop and the driver was beyond dejected, showing none of the verbal resolve needed to battle his way back to the front.
Then came the most famous Daniels-ism yet.
“In the first half, all I want you to remember is how good TV we made,” Daniels said over the radio. “We went from the back to the front more times than I can count. We hit the wall, we spun out, we literally caught on fire. We were also the most penalized team on pit road in the first half. All that means is that in the second half, already we’re going to be starting way better than what we started the first half. We’ve got to go execute right now, so I don’t know what the hell you’re worried about, but I’m fine, the team’s fine. Everybody down here is nodding their heads and giving a thumbs-up, so let’s go.”
Larson went forward, led more laps and was in contention up to the overtime chaos that ultimately decided the race.
All told, the crew chief is every asset as the driver, showing some early signs that they could become their generation’s Johnson and Chad Knaus. Best of all was that Larson didn’t even initially agree with the decision to pair with an unproven young crew chief like Daniels.
He needed to be convinced after signing his contract.
“At the time, he probably didn’t feel I had a lot of experience,” Daniels said. “By the time we were paired together, I had been a crew chief for a year or two and he had been in the sport for seven or eight years. He probably thought it was an unlikely pairing, which is totally fair to say, because we had to build our relationship and build our trust.”
Daniels says trust and conviction is the foundation behind the entire chemistry of the No. 5 team from everyone wearing a Hendrick Cars No. 5 fire suit on Sundays.
“Trust is the foundation behind any relationship and there’s no one I would trust more than him behind the wheel of our car,” Daniels said. “Our team is built on that relationship. It’s a special relation he and I have but also our entire organization.”
Now it’s hard to imagine any other version of this team, given their shared accolades, and it’s a success that Daniels hasn’t even had time to fully process or digest yet — the number of crown jewels they have won together.
“I don’t know that I have a good answer because I don’t know that I have time to think of it that way,” Daniels said. “It’s a totally fair question but I think the way I operate with our team and the way we operate together is … we just want to win the next one.”
Daniels says he doesn’t intend to marginalize or minimize the races he has won as crew chief but he is immediately thinking about the next one before context even sinks in about the last one.
Cup races are too hard to win, and it’s too easy for such success to vanish, for Daniels to allow himself to be distracted by the accolades. There’s a process and that process doesn’t allow for a lot of reflection.
“I don’t want to understate it at all, but while we’re in this position, we just have to keep our heads down week-to-week and keep trying to knock them down,” Daniels said. “I certainly hope to be able to rank them and enjoy them someday.
“But I would say that I recognize how tough it is to win a race like this one, or the Coca-Cola 600 or any of the races we’ve won.”
To that end, Daniels is already thinking about Kansas and the Bristol Night Race, not even resting on the laurels of being automatically locked into the Round of 12. Daniels is more fixated on a disjointed season that looks like an electrocardiogram if charted out over the first 27 races.
“At any point we would win, finish 30th, run second, finish 30th, wreck from the lead, finish 30th,” Daniels said. “It was just like that all year long.”
So, again, he isn’t even going to spend the next two weeks relishing this latest triumph because that’s not how they get to the next one.
“I guess what I’m getting at is from a team-building perspective, we had to really focus in on ourselves,” Daniels sad. “We learned the lessons in the moment that we needed to learn from some adversity that we created and overcame, so that when we’re next in the position of having a top-5 day that we were ready to close it out.
“We’ve been knocked around a bit this season, but we’re battle tested, and we’re going to keep marching forward.”
So right now, Daniels doesn’t know where to rank a Southern 500 victory, but he knows it’s important and that day will eventually come.
“We’ve had a lot of heartbreak here in my times past,” Daniels said. “Had some heartbreak here when I was Jimmie’s crew chief; Kyle when he was in the 42 had a lot of heartbreak here. Plus, really the way the last two or three years have gone for Kyle and I together on the 5 team, this track, this race has been circled on our calendar for a long time.
“It’s a very special race for the sport. Obviously it’s a crown jewel. It’s a milestone race if you can get it done.”
Objectively, from the outside, Daniels is starting to accumulate an incredible resume that the industry will certainly take stock of until the moment comes for him to reflect.
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.