Cliff Daniels bringing a familiar competitive fire to Jimmie Johnson

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s well documented that Chad Knaus was a direct offshoot of NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief Ray Evernham.

Before winning seven championships with Jimmie Johnson, Knaus spent his formative years being mentored by Evernham as a title-winning crew member and tire changer on the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon.

With the addition of crew chief Cliff Daniels two months ago on Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet, that Hendrick Motorsports chain has been re-established.

“Cliff and Chad are a lot alike personality-wise,” Johnson told NASCAR on NBC’s Jeff Burton in a recent interview. “There’s a natural fit for what the 48’s DNA is. Cliff is just an extension of that. Chad was an extension of Ray. Cliff is that of Chad. Now the 48 is back on familiar ground from a leadership standpoint. He has great energy, great communication skills, high expectations and proceeds in a way that builds energy in everyone.”

MORE: Johnson says Hendrick will know his future within four to six months

Daniels, a 31-year-old from Smithfield, Virginia, who recently became a first-time father (and had left the road to start the 2019 season because of family), doesn’t immediately remind someone of Knaus, the 48-year-old from Rockford, Illinois, whose maniacal drive and insatiable ambition helped make him the greatest crew chief in NASCAR history.

But the results-driven fire and zeal become more obvious when digging deeper into the history of Daniels, who has worked on cars and raced since he was 8 (while also pursuing a promising baseball career) and also worked under Knaus for four seasons.

“I’ve always been really competitive in anything I’ve wanted to do or done, so with competitive nature, you can get reckless at times and get hot-headed.,” Daniels told NBC Sports in an interview last Saturday before qualifying at Kansas Speedway. “We’ve always been a competitive family, but I was taught at a young age to be disciplined in your mental approach for any level of competition: Baseball, racing, you name it.

“We all know Chad is a very fierce competitor. He can be a hothead at times. He knows that and admits that, and he demanded a high level of performance. He had high expectations. He always wanted the team to meet that.

“That was not unfamiliar territory for me. I knew even times he’d get frustrated or push us really hard, I knew where that was coming from, and plus, you don’t have the record that Chad and Jimmie have together unless there’s a high level of intellect, a great approach and just process to put a great product on the racetrack.”

(Credit: Hendrick Motorsports)

Born into a racing family, Daniels’ introduction to stock cars started early (there is a picture of his father holding a 6-month-old Daniels in victory lane at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Virginia). He began racing go karts and Legends while simultaneously pursuing a promising baseball career (playing as a pitcher and catcher on a traveling team). He chose racing in his early teens and progressed to Late Models until the money ran out.

Adhering to his parents’ rule that he could race only if he earned As and Bs, Daniels also went to college during this time and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from UNC Charlotte.

“I remember when light bulbs started going off for me sitting in some of those engineering classes in college and how well I could connect my racing experience to the math and the science and the physics and everything about making my car go faster or understand it better,” Daniels said. “I saw a new opportunity to take advantage of that time in college and push it forward.”

It led to work as a race engineer at Robby Benton’s Xfinity team, working with Kenny Wallace and crew chief Scott Zipadelli. Daniels moved from there to Stewart-Haas Racing as Tony Stewart’s race engineer in 2013-14.

He joined Hendrick Motorsports in December 2014 and spent the 2015-18 seasons under Knaus’ tutelage as race engineer.

“Working under Chad for so many years, I got to see both the good and bad, but I’m very biased to the good,” Daniels said. “There was so much to be learned from those experiences. The way he approached things. With my competitive nature, and again, just my awareness of knowing how to be disciplined about that, that has brought me here in a good spot to know how to push the team and Jimmie but to be smart about it and have a methodical approach.

“So I can totally see how somebody would say I’m like Chad in ways and have learned a lot from Chad. Because I have, and I’d be a fool not to because look at the guy’s record. There’s a lot to be said for that.”

Daniels enjoyed some of that No. 48 success, taking part in 10 victories and a seventh championship his first two years with the team. But he also was part of the first winless season in Johnson’s career last year (which led to the split of Johnson and Knaus after 17 seasons).

“We definitely have gotten kicked in the teeth, but I could see this hunger in Jimmie to keep going and keep fighting, and a lot of the communication we had just over the years, we knew at some point the 48 had to get back on the upswing,” Daniels said. “You don’t fall out of being a dominant team overnight. You don’t get back to being a dominant team overnight. There’s a process on both sides.

“We’d seen a point we’d reached bottom, and the only way to go from here is up. It starts with confidence, attitudes and resetting our mindset. We’re still building on that. I can tell we’re improving every week. I can see his confidence improving every week. The team’s confidence is improving every week.”

Johnson has four top 10s in the past five races with Daniels, who took over in the Aug. 4 race at Watkins Glen International. Johnson, who missed the playoffs for the first time this season, had eight top 10s in the first 21 races this season with Kevin Meendering,

Though Johnson admitted the decision to switch crew chiefs for the second time in less than a year was awkward (Daniels said he is a longtime friend of Meendering, who remained at Hendrick to help the team), the seven-time series champion has spoken incessantly since about a chemistry with Daniels that is reminiscent of how he once talked about his working relationship with Knaus.

“The connection I have with Cliff and the way we talk about the car and the confidence he can build and instill in me has taken me on this emotional roller coaster,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “I wasn’t really sure how deep I was in the valley dealing with changing from Chad and getting involved with Kevin. Cliff has really brought me back up and has me so excited and so ready for each and every week, that I’m in the best place I’ve been mentally for years. So absolutely I am ready for this fight.”

So is Daniels, who had to make some major life changes after coming off the road to work in Hendrick’s engineering department and reconnect with his short-track roots (he attended races around Virginia and North Carolina for six months before rejoining the No. 48 road crew at Sonoma Raceway). His wife, Shannon, fully endorsed the move (and gave birth to their daughter Aug. 15)

“I was incredibly surprised at how supportive she was, and I think it’s because her heart was in my job as much as my heart was in my job for the 48 and helping the team over the last five to six years,” he said. “Once we had the conversations about how tough it would be and managing our home life and with the baby coming, her attitude really didn’t change.

“I’m so grateful that she’s had a great attitude this whole time. She believes in what the 48 is all about and what we’re doing. She believes in Jimmie and what I’m doing. So I hardly have words to thank her for that because without her support, this would be so tough. To do it right, you spend a lot of hours at the shop. I work every day. It’s really trying to get our car, our product, our team, our performance back where it needs to be. So without her support and commitment, it would be pretty tough.”

(Credit: Hendrick Motorsports)

Las Vegas Xfinity results, driver points

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Chase Briscoe‘s victory Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway sends him into the next round of the Xfinity playoffs.

Noah Gragson led a 2-3-4 finish for JR Motorsports. Gragson was second and followed by Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg finished fifth.

Briscoe dominated the race, leading 164 of the 200 laps.

Click here for Xfinity race results

POINTS

Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers, and fell out of a transfer spot to the second round. He’s two points behind Harrison Burton for the final transfer spot. Michael Annett is 10 points behind Burton. Riley Herbst is 14 points behind Burton. Brandon Brown is 20 points behind Burton.

Click here for driver points report

Chase Briscoe scores 8th Xfinity win of year with Las Vegas triumph

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Chase Briscoe met a preseason goal of winning eight races with his victory in Saturday night’s Xfinity playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Briscoe, who also won at Las Vegas in February, advances to the second round.

Briscoe dominated, winning both stages on the way to his second consecutive victory and eighth of the year. He led 164 of 200 laps.

“Awesome car,” Briscoe said on the radio of the car that also won at this 1.5-mile speedway earlier this year. “Can’t say enough, awesome car.”

Gragson said of Briscoe’s car on NBCSN: “Lot of race cars out here and one space shuttle.”

Las Vegas native Noah Gragson finished second and was followed by JR Motorsports teammates Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg placed fifth.

Austin Cindric placed sixth and was followed by Michael Annett, Anthony Alfredo, Harrison Burton and Justin Haley.

Briscoe’s eight wins through 27 races ties him with Jack Ingram and Sam Ard for the most wins by non-Cup drivers through 27 races in a season. Ard and Ingram both did it in 1984. Briscoe’s eight wins ties him with Carl Edwards for most wins by a Ford driver in a season in the Xfinity Series. Edwards accomplished the feat in 2011.

“I knew this team was fully capable of achieving that and even more,” Briscoe told NBCSN of winning eight races this year. “I just can’t say thank you enough to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart and everyone that lets me drive these race cars. It has been an unbelievable season and we still have a lot, six more wins that we can try to get and a championship. That is what we are going to try to do. I am so happy to start the playoffs like this. After the last couple weeks we had, to go to Bristol and win and now here is a pretty good way to start our playoffs.”

The 25-year-old Briscoe does not know where he’ll run next season. He has a year left on his contract with Ford.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Sieg’s fifth-place finish is his fifth top five of the season, the most he’s had in a season. … Runner-up Noah Gragson has finished in the top six in all four of his Xfinity Las Vegas starts. He did it by overcoming a bloody nose during the race. At one point, he put roll bar padding up his nose to clog it. … Daniel Hemric had finished 24th or worse in four of his last five starts before Saturday’s race. He finished third at Las Vegas.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers. It’s his first finish outside the top 10 at a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

NEXT: The series races Oct. 3 at Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) in the middle race of the opening round of the playoffs.

Gracie Trotter becomes first female to win ARCA-sanctioned race

Gracie Trotter
Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images
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Gracie Trotter became the first female to win a race sanctioned by ARCA when she captured the ARCA Menards West race Saturday at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I’m at a loss for words right now. My first year in ARCA, out West, far from home – it just really means a lot to me,” Trotter said after her first series win.

The best finish by a female in ARCA Series history had been second. Shawna Robinson (1999 at Daytona), Erin Crocker (2005 and ’07 at Kentucky and 2006 at Kansas) and Hailie Deegan (2020 at Daytona) each finished runner-up in an ARCA race.

This is the first year that the West Series has been sanctioned by ARCA. It was previously known as K&N Pro Series West. Deegan was the most recent female winner in that series. She won three times. Deegan scored her first career West win in 2018 at Meridian (Idaho) Speedway. That victory made her the first female to win in that series. Deegan went on to win twice more in that series in 2019.

The 19-year-old Trotter is a third-generation racer. She drives for Bill McAnally Racing. Trotter began competing in go-karts at age 8. She was the first female to win the Young Lions Legends Cars division at Charlotte Motor Speedway, capturing the title in 2017. This is her first season in the ARCA Menards West Series.

Trotter pulled away from teammate Gio Scelzi to win by 0.821 seconds Saturday. Teammate Jesse Love, who is the series points leader, finished third.

She took the lead on Lap 54 with a three-wide pass.

“I kind of got a little lucky there,” Trotter said. “The two front cars were battling side by side. I took it three-wide, a little sketchy at first, but I made it stick.”

She went on to lead 95 of the 150 laps.

Trotter also competes for Rev Racing as part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program. She won her first Late Model race at Hickory (North Carolina) Motor Speedway on Sept. 13. The win made her the fourth female to win a Late Model Series race at the historic 0.363-mile track, which opened in 1951.

A replay of Saturday’s ARCA Menards West race will air at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday (Sept. 30) on NBCSN.

Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas: Start time, TV channel

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The second round of the Cup playoffs begins with the Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The 1.5-mile track kicks off the Round of 12. Winning the race and stage points are a premium for playoff drivers before the races at Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.

Kevin Harvick, who won at Bristol, starts from the pole.

Here is all the info for the Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given by Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis at 7:07 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:17 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at Noon. Drivers report to their cars at 6:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7 p.m. by Motor Racing Outreach Chaplain, Billy Mauldin. The national anthem will be performed by Sierra Black at 7:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400.5 miles) around the 1.5-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 6:30 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for sunny skies with a high of 96 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Kevin Harvick beat Kyle Busch to win at Bristol and claim his ninth win of the season.

LAST POINTS RACE AT LAS VEGAS: Joey Logano beat Matt DiBenedetto and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in February.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the lineup.

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