Team leader Cliff Daniels led an intense race to the NASCAR title


NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) – Cliff Daniels still doesn’t get much sleep, nearly a month after lying awake all night before leading Kyle Larson to the NASCAR Championship.

Daniels is notoriously intense, as close as a clone can get to the seven-time champion crew chief, Chad Knaus. But after clinching his first Cup Series title as a team manager with Larson’s victory last month at Phoenix Raceway, Daniels has revealed he’s struggling to sleep before every race this season.

“My resting heart rate is too high. I haven’t slept before a Cup race all season, ”said Daniels. “Pick a random run in the middle of the year, I haven’t slept. You can ask my wife, and, I promise you, all the time she lectures me, ‘You have to sleep, you have to sleep. But I can’t sleep because I hold myself to a very high standard, and I think people around me know that.

Now in Nashville for NASCAR’s end-of-season awards celebration, Daniels still isn’t getting much rest. While he really enjoyed the championship party in Arizona – Daniels didn’t feel well enough to return home to North Carolina for nearly two days – he had to immediately prepare the No.5 team for a critical test. of the Next Gen car that NASCAR is unveiling next season.

He took a brief Thanksgiving break, then traveled with Hendrick Motorsports to Nashville, where the 33-year-old’s anxiety level is overloaded: his wife Shannon is back in Charlotte and awaiting the birth of their second child from one day to another.

The baby is currently in breech, and Daniels told The Associated Press that his concern for his family weighed heavily on him.

“I’m still not sleeping,” Daniels said as he sat alone in a downtown hotel bar, having a quick appetizer before a formal dinner with the team.

He doesn’t really expect that to change either. He will soon have two toddlers at home and at work, he will be tasked with replicating one of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history. Daniels led Larson to 10 Cup wins, the most laps in a season, a win in the $ 1 million All-Star race and a Cup title in their first season together.

“With Kyle Larson as the driver, you are the weak link, not him. This is how I see it and this is why I will probably never sleep, ”Daniels said.

Daniels was a team leader who needed to be validated, wondering if he could lead a team at the highest level of NASCAR after 50 races without a win with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Daniels had been an engineer under Knaus for Johnson in the No.48 team, but when team owner Rick Hendrick separated Johnson and Knaus after the 2018 season, Daniels did not get a post of chief executive. team. It took 21 frustrating races in 2018 before Hendrick ordered another reorganization that puts Daniels on top of Johnson’s stand.

But when he failed to get one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history on the path to victory, Daniels feared he didn’t have what it takes. He knew Johnson was retiring at the end of the 2020 season and was unsure of keeping his job.

Hendrick never doubted Daniels – “Chad raised him,” the owner said of Knaus – and he had faith in the couple he was planning for 2021.

“I remember when Cliff didn’t know who would be the driver this year. I said, ‘I think you’ll be happy,’ ”recalls Hendrick.

Knaus, now Hendrick’s vice president of competition, reluctantly chose Daniels when asked which of the four current HMS team leaders most closely resembles him when it comes to leadership. While the two are similar in intensity and drive, Knaus ‘reluctance was based on Daniels’ balance of life.

“He is what I wish I had been,” Knaus told AP. “He’s so smart, like he’s really smart and he gets it. He also has this runner instinct and that’s a tough thing to put together. Being as good at racing as he is and being an engineer is a strange combination that he is capable of achieving.

Daniels made his debut, after all, as a runner. It was a family-centered activity in the garage of their home in Smithfield, Virginia. Daniels and his sister both worked on cars their father raced at Langley Speedway, and the siblings became full-fledged drivers.

But Daniels took an educational detour and earned an engineering degree from UNC Charlotte, a good place to start for those hoping to break into NASCAR. Daniels worked on the Hall of Famer Tony Stewart team before Knaus brought him to Hendrick, and his chance to lead a team came with Johnson.

When he learned he would be associated with Larson, who was suspended from all but four NASCAR races in 2020 for using a racial slur, Daniels wasted no time in learning as much as he could. on his new pilot before the season. Daniels began attending the races on land when Larson competed so he could listen to the driver communicate, learn his vernacular, and understand how much Larson knew about cars.

“I needed to learn the discipline of running on gravel. I’ve been to late model races, I’ve been to midget races, I’ve been to sprint car races, ”Daniels said. “I was getting so much information from him about himself, like he was in front every night, and if he got beaten by someone on a reboot, he would tell me what he had done of badness.

“And that would help me learn what to look for outside of himself and outside of the car, whether it was dirt or pavement or whatever series was coming up. So that information for me was really invaluable because I don’t know how I could have obtained it otherwise.

Larson knows very little about race cars, and before joining Hendrick this year he had never participated in the pre-race strategy sessions. He praised the efforts of Daniels and the close-knit team he has assembled.

“He came on his own behalf and it was just nice for me to see that he cared about all the races I do and wanted to know more, wanted to talk to the team managers, choose their brains on the way that I communicate with and everything. ”Larson said. “I think that really kicked off the relationship. I’m really easy to work with, I feel like it’s really easy to work. He’s so good at communicating and so good at painting a picture and together we have great chemistry. ”

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