The phone rang mere minutes after the scheduled interview time, and Cliff Daniels didn’t waste a breath before apologizing for his tardiness. Three minutes barely seemed worthy of an apology.
But even with the NASCAR Cup Series on its winter hiatus, Cliff Daniels, crew chief of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 team for Jimmie Johnson, has found himself the busiest he’s ever been. Be it meetings or team-building exercises, Daniels and company haven’t wasted a minute concerning preparation for the 2020 season.
“The main priority has been to address the issues from last year,” Daniels tells RACER. “We had some tough conversations within our road crew group, within our team, within our pit crew group, with my engineers. We had tough conversations to really look in the mirror and say, OK, these are specific areas we know we were deficient, let’s go attack those and make sure we’re more prepared.
“Then, of course, let’s take a look at what we know we did well, how we practiced well, how we overcame adversity in different scenarios, lessons that we learned, and capitalized on at the end of the year. How can we continue upon some of that foundation?”
Fans of Johnson will be glad to hear Daniels report that “my guys have risen to the occasion.” It has been a job well done across all facets of the team – engineering, mechanical, pit crew.
“Obviously, I’ve been on the 48 team for a long time,” he says, “and the level of preparation we put in over the winter… we are very, very prepared right now.”
Daniels transitioned from the team’s race engineer to crew chief at the end of July 2019, replacing Kevin Meendering. Having joined Hendrick in 2014, Daniels has been a member of the 48 team for all but a brief stint spent with the competition systems group following the 2018 season.
Daniels leads with his natural passion and energy, taking inspiration from the successful history of the No. 48 team. And just as he’s been holding his team accountable for correcting its issues, he does the same to himself regarding team dynamics, chemistry, performance, and details of the race car.
In the final 15 races after Daniels took charge, Johnson earned four top-10 finishes and led 50 laps. Unfortunately, Johnson finished a career-low 18th in the standings and failed to make the playoffs for the first time in his illustrious career. Despite such numbers being nothing to write home about by the usual standards of the 48, Daniels saw potential.
Good: speed, well-prepared cars, no mechanical failures.
“[We] honestly executed our race weekends reasonably well, and there were a lot of races that we were in contention and had a shot at a top-five or a top 10 or better finish, and sometimes things just didn’t work out,” says Daniels.
“So, the fact that we went through such a tough start to the season, and obviously, the changes that were made and just the situation that the 48 was in, the resilience of the team to dig through that, to bring better products to the racetrack, to have well-prepared race cars, a lot of positives in that.”
Bad: not keeping up with a changing racetrack or balance on the car.
“We’ve really done our homework to dig in, compare our notes to ourselves, to our teammates, to understand what maybe we should have done better in the moment to keep up with the racetrack, changing conditions from day to night, temperature, weather. Whatever it may be,” Daniels continues. “Definitely a lot to learn from with some of those results and scenarios, and we have. So, we’ve really buttoned up our notebook from 2019 with conclusions in all those areas.
“And overall, just seeing the morale and the swagger of the team pick up toward the end of the year, even when we were running up front at Darlington and got crashed, running up front at Texas and crashed, running up front at Indy and crashed. Even through that, seeing the boost in morale and the confidence at the end of the year, I think there’s a lot to be said for that, and that’s what we’ve really tried to carry into the offseason and start this next season on a high note.”
This season brings an added focus on Daniels, Johnson, and the 48 team. Johnson has announced it will be his 19th and final full season. A future first ballot Hall of Famer, Johnson gets one more chance to chase a record-breaking eighth championship and add to an already loaded wins column (83).
Daniels sees this season as an incredible opportunity, being the man who will go down in the record books as Johnson’s last crew chief. On the one hand, the year ahead will be about honoring Johnson and having fun. However, on the other hand, Daniels believes the only way to properly do that is to perform at a high level.
There will be no contentment in an average finish or an average qualifying run. And certainly not in having an average season.
“It’s our job to go make sure that we are capable of winning, we are winning, and we are contending for a championship to send him out the right way,” Daniels says. “That’s the champion and the leader that he is on and off the track, so I think to do justice to him, and this season, we have to make sure that it’s enjoyable and we honor him, yes, but that we do that through being as highly competitive as we can be.”
A busy winter for Daniels and his group comes to an end in less than a month with the season-opening Daytona 500 – a race Johnson has won twice. The 48 team will arrive inspired and with a heightened sense of motivation to prove their preparation and potential to themselves and all others.
“It’s been so frustrating and disheartening to see the path the 48 was on the last couple of years, and the whole racing community has seen that,” says Daniels. “So to see how inspired we are, how motivated we are to apply ourselves, and to prove it, is really the tone that we’ve set, the tone that I’ve set. We have another shot to go do something great with someone whose career is already great. So, what a fortunate place to be in, but also what a responsibility to have. We have to make sure we’re doing our part to see it through, to be the best team every day, cover all the details, make up for any deficiencies we have, and to maximize our strengths and go perform. That’s the tone we have right now; everybody’s bought into it.
“I’ve done some exercises with the team over the winter to understand where their headspace is at an individual level and at a collective level, and it’s all so much in unison. We’re all so much in unison I’m kind of blown away by it, because it’s rare that you get a team that every individual knows the collective goal so well and is pulling so much in the same direction. I’ve been on baseball teams and football teams, volleyball teams, soccer teams, my whole life, and to see a team like this that’s really pulling in one direction, is inspirational and pretty cool. We’re fortunate to have that. So, that’s who we are, that’s what we’re all about, that’s where we’re headed.
“Obviously, there are no guarantees in any of this, so we’ll see what happens at the start of the season. But we’re going to come out swinging.”