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)

NASCAR will have choose rule for All-Star Race at Bristol

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Following support from drivers, NASCAR will allow competitors to choose which lane they want to restart in during the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The choose rule designates a spot on the track where a driver must select if they wish to restart on the inside lane or outside lane. The choose rule also will be in place for the NASCAR Open.

NASCAR also announced the format for the NASCAR Open and All-Star Race.

In the NASCAR Open, which is for drivers who have not qualified for the All-Star Race:

  • Stage 1 will be 35 laps
  • Stage 2 will be 35 laps
  • The final stage will be 15 laps

The winner of each stage advances to the All-Star Race. After the NASCAR Open, the Fan Vote winner will be announced. That will go to the driver not yet qualified for the All-Star Race after competing in the NASCAR Open.

In the All-Star Race, the format will be:

  • Stage 1 will be 55 laps
  • Stage 2 will be 35 laps
  • Stage 3 will be 35 laps
  • The final stage will be 15 laps

Both green flag and yellow flag laps will count in the first three stages. Only green flag laps will count in the final stage. There will be an unlimited number of attempts at a green, white, checkered finish under green flag conditions.

NASCAR also stated that the car number will move from the door toward the rear wheel to give more exposure to the teams’ sponsors

The biggest change is the choose rule. At Bristol, the outside line is dominant on restarts. The leader chooses to restart on the outside line and the driver starting in the second row — in fourth place — often is second shortly after the restart because of the lane’s advantage. With the rule change, others would have the chance to start on the outside lane if they wanted.

“I see nothing bad that it can bring,” Joey Logano said of the chose rule concept in May. “It brings another strategy to the table, it’s definitely something to talk about. You don’t have luck becoming involved. …

“I tell you, if I see a bunch of 12-year-olds do it in the Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway, I’m pretty sure all of us could figure it out.”

Said Austin Dillon: “As a sport we’re always changing. We’ve done a really good job with the mile-and-a-half program and brought it back to life. I think the next thing is trying to make it better for the fans and create more drama than it already has.”

Some drivers have called for this type of rule to prevent the brake checking that takes place at the exit of pit road so a driver can be in an even-number position in the running order and restart on the outside lane.

“It takes out pit crew’s fast stops,” Dillon said. “Your pit crew could’ve gained a couple of spots there, but instead you’re giving up two spots because you’d rather start on the outside. That’s gotta stop. I think it’s gonna knock someone’s nose in at the end of pit road before too long, so that will end a guy’s race. I don’t feel like it is a hard thing to do.”

The All-Star Race was moved from Charlotte Motor Speedway to Bristol Motor Speedway because of the COVID-19 pandemic and North Carolina restrictions on mass gatherings. Bristol will be allowed to have up to 30,000 fans.

Drivers who have already clinched an All-Star Race spot: Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Justin Haley, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.

 

Can anybody catch Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?

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Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.

Or is it Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?

They’ve won four of the last six Cup races, including the past two, and came within a late caution flag of being the last two Brickyard 400 winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s race (4 p.m. ET on NBC).

MORE: Indianapolis weekend schedule

MORE: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick 1-2 in Power Rankings

“For the most part, when we have had chances to win races, we have won them,” Harvick said. “I think Sunday (at Pocono) was probably the only one that I could point to and say that we had the car to win the race and didn’t win the race. I think for the majority of the races that we have had chances to win we have capitalized on those situations.”

That Pocono race Sunday? Harvick finished second to Hamlin, who has won two of the last four races.

“I would say specifically the last 10 to 11 (races) we’ve been exceptional, really since coming back from the break that we had,” Hamlin said. “I thought we’ve been really good.

“My team is really strong. They’re doing a lot of really good work at the race shop preparing our cars to be set up, optimized right from the first run of the day.

“Where we’re really struggling is not getting stage points. I think we’d be winning the regular season if we could get some. The way the races have played out, we’ve kind of made our bed to try to win the race because we’ve had race‑winning cars. I’ll definitely take race wins over stage wins, especially knowing that a race win counts for five (playoff points).”

Harvick enters Sunday’s race at Indy as the defending winner. He led 118 of 160 laps in last year’s race, winning by more than six seconds.

In 2018, Hamlin led at Indy when a caution with six laps to go took away his advantage. Brad Keselowski passed Hamlin coming to the white flag and won.

If not Harvick or Hamlin this weekend, Keselowski could be one to watch.

“My confidence level right now is very, very high that we can be a contender for the entire season and continue to build and get stronger,” said Keselowski, who has two wins and eight top-10 finishes since the season resumed in May. “Very, very pleased to see how the team has come together. … Now we’re starting to show a lot of speed. I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential.”

Even with Keselowski’s success, Harvick and Hamlin have been stout. This is how dominant Harvick and Hamlin have been all season and since May:

Most wins this year (15 races)

Most wins since season resumed (11 races)

  • Denny Hamlin (3 wins)
  •  Kevin Harvick (3 wins)
  • Brad Keselowski (2 wins)

Most top-five finishes this year (15 races)

Most top-five finishes since season resumed (11 races)

  • Denny Hamlin (8 top 5s)
  • Kevin Harvick (7 top 5s)
  • Chase Elliott (6 top 5s)
  • Ryan Blaney (6 top 5s)

Most top 10 finishes this season (15 races)

  • Kevin Harvick (12 top 10s)
  • Denny Hamlin (10 top 10s)
  • Brad Keselowski (10 top 10s)

Most top 10 finishes since season resumed (11 races)

  • Kevin Harvick (8 top 10s)
  • Denny Hamlin (8 top 10s)
  • Brad Keselowski (8 top 10s)
  • Martin Truex Jr. (8 top 10s)

Patriots of America PAC to be primary sponsor for Go Fas Racing in nine races

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Patriots of America, a political action committee supporting President Donald Trump’s re-election bid, will be the primary sponsor of Corey LaJoie’s car this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Go Fas Racing announced Wednesday.

Patriots of America PAC will be the primary sponsor on the car for eight additional races.  

“Our mission is to get voters registered and to the polls in November,” said Jeff Whaley on behalf of Patriots of America PAC. “We are excited about our sponsorship with Go Fas Racing No. 32 and Corey LaJoie. We feel this partnership is the best way to help us communicate this message to the NASCAR community and encourage all Americans to do their part by heading to the polls.”

Team owner Archie St. Hilaire said in a statement: “I am honored to be part of the President’s re-election campaign through the Patriots of America PAC. As a Trump 2020 supporter, this team will do everything possible to secure victory on and off the track electing President Donald Trump to a second term. Let us bring this country back and Keep America Great!”

According to public documents, Patriots of America has paid Go Fas Racing $350,000 to this point for the sponsorship.

Sunday’s Cup race airs at 4 p.m. ET on NBC.

NASCAR, Coca-Cola to honor military, frontline healthcare workers

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NASCAR will honor members of the U.S. Armed Forces and frontline healthcare workers throughout the month of July as part of this year’s expanded “NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola” initiative.

Per a media release, NASCAR said the program will be “an industry-wide opportunity to recognize and thank those who have gone above and beyond to keep society safe and healthy.”

The kickoff event for the program begins with Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at the Brickyard (4 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), shifting to a mid-summer window due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We take pride in honoring all who work tirelessly to keep our nation safe, whether a frontline worker in the fight against COVID-19 or part of our U.S. Armed Forces protecting us around the world,” said Jill Gregory, executive vice president and chief marketing and content officer, NASCAR. “The NASCAR industry has always been passionate about saluting our nation’s heroes both past and present, and we once again look forward to recognizing those who serve.”

Per a statement in the media release, NASCAR and Coca-Cola will create content to honor the “heroic work from our military and first responder community during the COVID-19 pandemic. … Through NASCAR digital and social channels, the industry will spotlight even more stories with a new ‘NASCAR Salutes Refreshing Moments’ feature that will also be hosted on NASCAR.com/Salutes.”

“While this crisis has impacted everyone’s daily lives, we are able to race because of the selfless acts by our military community and frontline workers,” said John Mount, vice president, sports marketing and region assets, Coca-Cola North America. “NASCAR Salutes offers an impactful opportunity to showcase our pride and appreciation for these heroes and their families.”

In addition to premier partner Coca-Cola, several other NASCAR Official Partners will also take part in the program:

  • Mack Trucks will wrap its NASCAR Mack Anthem haulers with NASCAR Salutes-themed graphics voted on by fans at com/NASCARSalutes. The paint schemes honor both military and frontline heroes and the winning designs will be unveiled July 4 and debut during the NASCAR Salutes window.
  • AMR, the “Official Emergency Medical Services Partner of NASCAR,” will feature the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola branding on its NASCAR safety trucks and safety team helmets throughout the program.
  • Goodyear continued its tradition of replacing the iconic “Eagle” sidewall for 600 Miles of Remembrance at Charlotte Motor Speedway. This year’s recognition was the Honor and Remember organization, which works closely with the industry to honor gold star families who have lost family members while serving.
  • Mack Trucks and Blue-Emu also collaborated on a day-long effort to thank truckers and critical workers for their hard work during COVID-19. After a kickoff at Mack Trucks’ headquarters, NASCAR’s Mack Anthem haulers visited Virginia-based Sovah Health to thank the frontline workers at the hospital en route to the NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway.

Fans can learn more about the heroes honored throughout the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Colaprogram by visiting NASCAR.com/Salutes.