Maybe now Cliff Daniels will get some sleep.
No one can argue that Daniels (shown above, right) doesn’t deserve some time to relax after a whirlwind season concluded Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. A season in which Daniels guided Kyle Larson to his first NASCAR Cup Series championship, which is also the first championship for Daniels in his second year as a crew chief. In the process, the most dominant team in the series added yet another win to the stat sheet, their 10th.
All that makes for good reason to take time to unwind. But in Daniels’ case, it’s a little bit different.
“I have not slept before any Cup race all season long, just so you know,” Daniels said. “Larson asked me today, ‘Did you sleep last night?’ I’m like, ‘No, I didn’t sleep last night.’ I haven’t slept before a race all season long. Pick a random race in the middle of the year; I did not sleep.”
The need for perfection will do that to a person.
Daniels, the protégé of seven-time champion crew chief Chad Knaus, holds himself to a high standard. But that’s because if he’s going to do that to every member of the No. 5 team, Daniels will also do it to himself. Meaning he’s also going to beat himself up as hard as he does the team.
Going into the season finale – where Larson was looked at as the favorite – was no different. Daniels knew what was coming. He saw the writing on the wall. After putting himself to bed at 9 p.m. local time, Daniels said he “saw every hour, every single hour” until 6:30 a.m.
“Somewhere around 2:00 a.m. I got up, drank some water, kind of walked around,” he revealed. “We stay right over where the stadiums are, so I could see all the folks leaving after the hockey game, and they went to the bars and stuff. And I’m going to be honest, there are some Bible devotionals that I read and watch and listen to, and did that in the middle of the night. I knew that my anxiety that I’ve had all year long probably wasn’t warranted, but it’s still a real thing.
“So, when Larson was like, ‘Man, you didn’t sleep last night?’ I was like, ‘Dude, I haven’t slept all year. So I’m right where I should be. It’s OK.’ He’s like, ‘Really? I didn’t know that.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I hide it from you. It’s OK.’
“So yeah, I never sleep the night before a Cup race. Probably never will as long as he’s my driver. With Kyle Larson as your driver, you’re the weak link, not him. That’s the way I see it.”
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) November 8, 2021
It’s hard to imagine there are any weak links on the Larson/Daniels team. Sure, they left something blocking the radiator at Talladega Superspeedway in the spring, and Larson only completed five laps before the engine blew, but mistakes happen. Daniels and his group didn’t make many mistakes in 36 races.
On the way to 10 wins, Larson set a record in single-season laps led. After Phoenix, that tally ends at 2,581. During the summer, Larson went three straight wins between Charlotte and Nashville, or four if you include the All-Star Race. In the playoffs, Larson matched Tony Stewart’s post-season run of five wins in 10 races.
Regular-season champion. Most top-10 finishes in the series (26). Most top-five finishes in the series (20).
Larson confirmed he didn’t know Daniels doesn’t sleep the night before races and joked that he made sure to tell Daniels he slept “like a baby” Saturday night. And when told that Daniels described himself as the weak link, Larson visibly reacted with a look of extreme bewilderment.
“That’s odd to hear him say he felt like the weak link, which I don’t feel like we have any weak links on our team at all,” said Larson. “I think we proved that tonight because it took a whole team effort to win that race. We joke with Cliff a lot that when we don’t win – he’s sad and he’s mopey and all this and that. It doesn’t surprise me, though. I guess that he thought he was a weak link just because he holds everybody to a high standard, but apparently himself, too.
“I think you need that, though. You need to have that drive in each and every one of you to want to be better each and every day. He’s an amazing crew chief, amazing leader, and I am extremely fortunate to be with this race team. I think Jimmie Johnson is a big credit to it, as well. I think his leadership skills have molded Cliff into the person he is and the crew chief he is today, as well as all the team members on this 5 car.”
Maybe such praise from a new NASCAR Cup Series champion will finally lead to some shut-eye for the new Cup Series champion crew chief.