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.”

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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)