Ask Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Cliff Daniels how the off-season has gone, and you’ll get more to your reply than just the customary answer about car preparation.
“It’s been navigating through the paint schemes and the change over of car numbers, and it’s so funny the things you take for granted,” says Daniels. “You are your car number; that’s who and what your team is. Even down to labels on wrenches, going from a 48 labeled wrench to a 5 labeled wrench. Then obviously the list goes on and on from there to toolboxes and pit boxes and our transporter, and all that sort of thing.”
Another essential agenda item is getting to know new driver Kyle Larson.
Daniels and his group, which was the existing No. 48 team, went through a bittersweet ending to the 2020 season. After experiencing the final races of Jimmie Johnson’s full-time career, they bid the seven-time champion goodbye and sent him off to IndyCar. Very quickly, the team turned the page with excitement about welcoming Larson into the fold. The team has been renumbered to the 5.
“Just to have his talent back on our racetracks and in our sport, I think is great,” says Daniels.
Larson returns to NASCAR competition after his use of a racial slur on an iRacing stream led to his being benched by the series for the bulk of the 2020 season, and dropped altogether by Chip Ganassi Racing. He ran only four races last year.
“It’s been fun to just get to know Kyle, and I’ve been to several races with him when they were racing at the Charlotte dirt track (late last year),” says Daniels. “He had another midget race in Millbridge (North Carolina) that I went and hung out with him for a little while. So just to see him compete in that environment, to see his demeanor, is really cool, because for someone with that much talent, that much ability, to go win in anything and just to have the demeanor he has, you would never know standing there talking to the guy that he’s about to go be the fiercest competitor on track five minutes before a race. … That’s been really cool, and to spend the brief amount of time that we’ve had here at the shop together has been nice getting him fit into our race cars.
“It’s been 17 years – I believe that’s how long Jimmie’s career was – 17 years since we’ve really had to redo the interior of one of our cars. It was always same seat position, seat liner, steering wheel location, pedal location, every little nuance to the interior. And that’s all been redone for Kyle, which is cool to go through and experience with him, and then make sure we get everything right without having a lot of on-track time beforehand. And of course no testing and not much practice puts more emphasis on things being done right here in the shop.”
In late October, after Larson’s signing was confirmed, team owner Rick Hendrick admitted he first had to get “comfortable” with Larson’s heart. During his time away from stock cars, Larson completed the mandatory sensitivity training required for his reinstatement in addition to hiring a diversity coach and traveling the country to educate himself better.
Daniels didn’t need to do any soul searching of his own about Larson being hired as his driver. As the story unfolded during the summer, he was already following Larson’s progress. By the time Larson joining Hendrick started to look like a reality, “I had become so familiar with what he had done, and then very quickly once I knew we could end up working together, (through) our team at Hendrick Motorsports and folks around him, I got to learn even more about him and his summer and his experiences and things he’d done, that it gave me so much more confidence in who he was as a person,” he says. “And then already the puzzle pieces were there of who he is as a driver.
“He showed that to the whole world this summer; he’s shown that to the whole world really since he stepped foot in a race car. So being able to piece those together, now I very much have the peace of mind to stand shoulder to shoulder with this guy and go compete, because of who he is and what he’s done, and where he’s headed with his life outside of racing, most importantly. And then his life within racing, he’s doing a lot of things right.”
The pandemic has limited the extent to which Daniels can interact in person, so when the Larson hasn’t been doing necessary things in the shop like getting fitted for his car, the pair have been communicating a lot over the phone, working to create a baseline for how they are going to work together at the track, at the shop, and anywhere in between.
“What I found interesting is how natural our conversation has become over the last month or two,” says Daniels. “We’ve talked through different scenarios, how he likes to see and approach things, what information he likes to have, but it’s been more dialogue within the context of really breaking down a weekend or a race or how we prepare for a race, that was just natural. We didn’t have to say, ‘OK, what do you want me to say in this situation and what are you going to say in this situation’. We just kind of had open and honest and very natural dialogue, because we approach it very similarly.”
Hendrick Motorsports enters the ’21 season as the reigning series champions with Chase Elliott. Three of its four drivers won races last season and made the playoffs. Larson is a former playoff contender, qualifying for the postseasons in four of his six full seasons.
Naturally, Larson and Daniels expect to win races and contend for the championship. But there are other things he wants to see from his driver and team this year.
“I think one of the biggest things as our whole approach as a team, and this would include (Larson), is to get our foundation built early,” he says. “In the way we communicate, the way we prepare, how we go execute a race. If we can get that foundation built early, I have a lot of confidence in our group, in our team, in Kyle. One of the biggest things I learned from the Chad [Knaus] and Jimmie days is having that foundation. Once you establish that and you can really start refining the details of communication, of execution, of strategy, that’s when business really picks up, and that’s where I think we can get to relatively quickly because our team has always been built like that.
“This was Chad’s team that I was a part of, and then it kind of got transitioned through, but there’s still a lot of key players on this team that have been here for years on what was the 48, now the 5. And then again, with the incredibly high caliber of driver that Kyle is, once we lay that foundation for ourselves, the expectations are obvious. I think that’s where we can not only get to the success that we want to have, but we can sustain it. And that’s what Kyle and I have talked about. How to get to where we want to be?
“It’s going to be one thing to go win a race. OK, cool, great, won a race. Now, what are you going to do from there? I don’t have a Cup win as a crew chief, so in no way am I taking that for granted at all; it’s just making sure we have put the right pieces in place so as we’re finding the success that we want to have and are working to have, we can sustain it. That’s my goal for him. That’s my goal for me. That’s my goal for the team.”
For more with Cliff Daniels, listen to this week’s episode of The Racing Writer’s Podcast.