Right Sides Only: Notes from the 2021 Championship Crew Chief, Cliff Daniels


In the couple of months preceding the 2021 NASCAR season, Cliff Daniels didn't know who would drive the No. 5 car. Rick Hendrick assured him he'd be happy when he found out. Now that his driver, Kyle Larson, has won the Cup championship, it's safe to say that Mr. Hendrick was right. Cliff Daniels is a happy man.

"This year, throughout the entire season, our team pushed so hard. Sounds easy to say. Of course all teams push hard.

"But it all came down to the final pit stop. And I have always pushed our guys so hard back at the shop, the guys working on the car, the guys pitting the car, and to see them shine in a moment where they could shine I think is just incredible. And then of course Kyle on the restart and really all day long Kyle staying in the game was just incredible.

"It takes so many people back at the shop at Hendrick Motorsports to get Kyle back after he was out last season, there’s so many people behind all of this, I couldn’t be more thankful, and what it took to get today done was a really big deal for our company and for our team.

"So big thank you to Mr. H, everyone in the Hendrick family, Hendrick Automotive Group that’s been sponsoring us most of the year. And I know what a big deal it was so them, Chevrolet, all the guys behind us, and everybody back in the shop, really cool day," Daniels said.

Though it may not seem like a big deal, having the right pit stall can mean everything to a team. Larson's pole position fast lap also garnered his team the first pit stall, which Daniels said was "very important." Someone else, though, wasn't as aware of the importance of snagging that stall.

"It’s funny because earlier Kyle said he didn’t know that qualifying mattered all that much. Well, it absolutely did, to get that pit stall. What a big deal that was.

"I think he was saying that more in the context of there’s going to be an ebb and flow to the race, guys are going to be up front, you’re going to be not up front. I know that that’s how he meant that comment when he made it, but it was pretty funny to me to hear him say that.

"But knowing that we had pit stall 1, I think we had pit stall 1 for either the last four or five races of the year. So that was a really comfortable spot for our guys to be in. They have pitted from the lead a lot. They have pitted from at the cusp of getting the lead a lot, so they know how to be tough, so that was a big deal," Daniels explained.

If pit selection is such a big deal, why didn't the other three championship contenders put any emphasis on qualifying?

"All of our homework was done on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and I guess a little bit Thursday on qualifying. But none while we were at the track, which sounds crazy to say. We knew on Tuesday that we were going to do top 3 and 4 coming to the green, which we did. We were going to run top 1 and 2 on the money lap, which was lap 1, and then just pray, and 3 and 4, which is exactly what he did, and we got a pole by a tenth and a half.

Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs

"So the plan that we established on Tuesday for how to go qualify is exactly what Larson executed, which is just incredible.

"Honestly, that had nothing to do with the car, that was all him," Daniels said.

Daniels was quick to extend thanks to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Greg Ives, for a little help with some data prior to the Phoenix finale.

"Big thank you to Greg Ives and the 48 team because there were some things we were thinking about doing in a mock run that was a little different than what we had done all of the Hendrick cars in years past, and the 48 tried that out in practice with Alex, and it went okay. They actually looked pretty good on their mock run.

"If it weren’t for that data point to help tell me what to do with the car, just to get it close, I knew Larson was going to nail it of course either way, but that helped us get where we needed to be.

"So the 48 doing the Q run in practice that we did not, coupled with our prep Monday and Tuesday, I think is what made the difference," Daniels explained.

A driver can only do much. The same goes for the crew and teammates. Sometimes, a crew chief has to acknowledge that a set-up wasn't the greatest and that he may not have given his driver the best car. It's what they do throughout the race to make improvements that sets the champion crew chief apart from everyone else. When asked if the No. 5 team had the fastest car, this is how Daniels responded.

"Absolutely not, no, we were terrible halfway through the race. We were — terrible is a strong word, but compared to our standards this year that I never expected to set the bar that high to ourselves, where we could go dominate and lead laps, we were not where we needed to be.

"I am familiar with what he needs to be comfortable in a car, and unfortunately we did not give him that for most of the race today. We had to make a lot of adjustments. There was a wrench in the window every single pit stop. We knocked in rubbers. We did all sorts of — every spectrum of air pressure that you could try, even one by accident that helped us.

"Even the final pit stop the guys had an amazing stop, was all four tires had different air pressure, it was a track bar change and tape, and they still won the race off pit road, so that was pretty cool. 

"We were the third or the fourth place car for most of the day today. For the final restart, we made a handful of adjustments, had an amazing pit stop, and our car held off everyone in the field for the final run of the race. Well, I made a lot of adjustments to do that because I knew what he needed, if that makes sense," Daniels explained.

For Larson fans, it makes a lot of sense.


Stacey Owens lives just outside Music City USA. She's always wanted to be a NASCAR writer, so working as a columnist and support editor for Skirts and Scuffs allows her to live that dream most weekends throughout the season.
This self-admitted grammar nerd loves reading mysteries, playing with her dogs, and binge-watching programs with her husband.

Right Sides Only: Notes from the 2021 Championship Crew Chief, Cliff Daniels Right Sides Only: Notes from the 2021 Championship Crew Chief, Cliff Daniels Reviewed by Stacey Owens on Monday, November 08, 2021 Rating: 5