The sense of accomplishment of making it to Phoenix Raceway with an opportunity to win another NASCAR Cup Series championship is much different this time around for Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Cliff Daniels.
Daniels and his driver Kyle Larson have not had their best season — if only the box score were taken into consideration. The No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been a top-five car on speed and performance, but the finishes were inconsistent throughout the year. And yet, Daniels and Larson put together a solid three rounds of the postseason and earned their second Championship 4 berth.
“This one has the potential of being more fulfilling from that aspect,” Daniels told RACER. “The other one (in 2021) had the opportunity of the fulfillment aspect of, ‘OK, we just dominated (and) we capped off a dominating season.’ In this case, it would be from the standpoint of, ‘We have been through it all.’ Truly. Which we almost quite didn’t back then.
“We have been through it all and we have failed miserably as a team at times and we have succeeded — could have lapped the field at North Wilkesboro. So, we’ve had those moments, and now it’s, ‘OK, can we cap off what has been so extreme on either side?’”
Daniels and Larson ran roughshod through the Cup Series field in 2021. The team earned 10 wins (including the finale at Phoenix to clinch the championship), the non-points event All-Star Race and led over 2,500 laps.
There was no question two years ago who the best team in the series was, and so stressed was Daniels to cap off what he described as a magical season with a championship that he hardly slept. Daniels would stress about race strategy. He would spend endless amounts of time thinking of the tiniest things on the race car and how everything could be buttoned up.
“I wasn’t losing sleep like, ‘Oh, am I going to fail?’ It was more of losing sleep of, ‘Man, if the caution comes out at this point in the stage, what am I going to do?” Daniels said. “Or, ‘Man, we were tight here the last time, do I have enough stuff in the car to not be tight?’ That was way more of my mindset then, which as a crew chief or coach, you still always have those thoughts.
“I’ve learned how to manage that better, and the way we work as a team and our processes have evolved so much since then. Which is kind of the way it should be. You have to evolve. You have to grow. So that growth has certainly been healthy, I think.”
Kyle Larson and Cliff Daniels have had a lot more ups and downs together than they did in 2021 but still have a shot at ending up in the same place. Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images
Larson won two races in the regular season, had three stage wins and led 624 laps. But he also had six DNFs. The postseason has been better as the No. 5 added two more victories and, in nine races, has led 503 laps with five top-10 finishes.
Even with some of the struggles, Daniels and his team are much more comfortable in their own skin. And for him, that includes sleeping more.
“I think the difference is we still hold ourselves to a very high standard, and we still have a lot of pressure and intensity that we put on ourselves, but (back) then, we had won nine races leading up to Phoenix,” Daniels said. “We had won three in a row twice. We had all of these magical things that happened. Some of the pressure then was almost, ‘Oh no, how can we screw this up?’ Where now, every other week, we completely screw it up. And I don’t say that unnecessarily critically or too light, but we have absolutely witnessed ourselves do great things this year — and take a great thing and absolutely squander it this year.
“So, I guess my point is, now in our skin, we’ve got the experience of what it means to fail catastrophically, and there’s a lot of growth and learning that comes from that. If you listen to any of the great sports coaches or players over the years, they all identify that those failures are every bit as valuable as the moments of success. Our season has been so littered with both, I think that’s going to keep us very tempered … yes, the pressure and intensity are going to be there, I just think it’s going to keep us a lot more level going into the weekend.”
If anything, Daniels believes “100%” it’s been a good thing that his team has been so battle-tested this season.
“In the moment, the human emotion that goes with it, you’re mad, you’re sad, you’re frustrated,” Daniel said. “But to be where we are now and to have the experience of going through that, I almost welcome the fact that we’ve gone through it. It’s almost extra building blocks that we have that others don’t.
“My message to the team often is how to use those experiences, those very polarizing experiences that other teams really haven’t gone through the way we have, to our advantage.”