Analysis: In shadow of Kyle Larson, Cliff Daniels enjoying his own breakout

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To this point, Year 1 of Kyle Larson at Hendrick Motorsports has been remarkable. He’s won three times with the fastest car in the series, proving he’s every bit the driver analytics suggested he was. But in the shadows of Larson’s rise is Cliff Daniels, a young crew chief becoming one of the NASCAR Cup Series’ foremost strategists before our eyes.

Last season — Daniels’ first full year atop a pit box — he struggled to supplement Jimmie Johnson’s efforts on green-flag pit cycles, defending the No. 48 team’s running position 22% of the time when relinquishing a top-five spot and 53% of the time across all positions. This season, Daniels’ retention rates have improved to 83% and 75%, respectively, for Larson’s new-look No. 5 team.

The difference in the execution of a green-flag stop was on display in two Las Vegas spring races, a year apart:

Las Vegas 2020

In the pit cycle running from laps 196-220, Johnson relinquished the fifth-place position to pit on lap 217, during which pit road was heavily populated with frontrunners, including Joey Logano (eventual winner), Matt DiBenedetto (eventual second-place finisher) and cars from Hendrick and Stewart-Haas Racing. His two-lap sequence lasted 106.96 seconds. The pit stop itself, for four tires, lasted 13.53 seconds, nearly a second and a half better than the crew’s median four-tire box time that season.

And while a caution flag on lap 221 halted the cycle, providing those who long-pitted an ample advantage, Johnson’s positional loss was made more extreme because a trailing driver, William Byron from ninth, leapfrogged the No. 48 car in the running order. Byron pitted on the same lap and executed a two-lap pit sequence over 0.7 seconds faster than Johnson.

What went wrong? Both Johnson and Byron had similar sub-14-second box times and pit road travel times clocking in at 27.9 seconds. Johnson’s approach to pit road and his blend back onto the track upon exiting, slower than Byron’s pit-in/pit-out effort by nearly one full second. Daniels’ timing of the stop could’ve used a delay; a stop one lap later, away from the most populated pit lap, taking advantage of a cleaner track for Johnson, would’ve potentially alleviated the driver’s pit entry and voided some of the delta created by Byron.

The only thing right about the stop was the stop itself, a performance by the pit crew that was something of an outlier on their yearlong output.

In all, Johnson lost five positions — three because of long-pitting teams who benefited from the abrupt ending to the cycle, one to Brad Keselowski‘s two-tire stop and one to Byron. It took him 56 laps to reclaim a top-five position on the final lap. Any hope for a better finish was stymied by the pit cycle, due to the driver’s contribution and the timing of the stop itself.

Las Vegas 2021

Larson won this year’s spring race in Las Vegas, thanks in large part to two green-flag pit cycles — one in which Larson moved from second to first, courtesy of Daniels, and another in which he retained the lead that resulted in the victory.

In the cycle running from laps 106-152, Larson leapfrogged Keselowski for the lead, thanks to the precise timing of the stop. Daniels, recognizing Larson’s five sub-31-second laps on worn tires, held his driver out one lap longer than a slower Keselowski. It was simultaneously a one-lap hedge on the potential of a caution flag and a bet on clean, fast laps in advance of the stop providing cover for whatever small advantage Keselowski would gain on fresh rubber.

The gambit worked, overcoming the 0.2-second deficit created by Keselowski in the two-lap pit sequence; Larson’s four laps surrounding the stop were faster than those turned in by Keselowski.

During the race’s final green-flag pit cycle from laps 215-246, Larson successfully defended his lead on Keselowski and all others by replicating the previous effort. Larson’s two-lap pit sequence was a half-second slower than Keselowski’s effort, but Daniels again pitted Larson one lap later, maximizing fast laps on worn tires to nullify the majority of Keselowski’s gain.

What a difference a year made.

“I’m actually excited when I see a green-flag pit cycle come around”

It’s one thing to build the fastest car in the series, but it’s another to understand its speed in relation to tire wear and how to best optimize that strength in a pit sequence. The entire dynamic — pit crew performance, Larson’s ability to get on and off pit road efficiently and the timing of the stops around tire wear — was a central focus for Daniels heading into this season.

“Our pit crew went through a bit of a building process last year,” Daniels said. “One of our guys actually stepped away at the end of the year and we got a new jackman in, so we had to do some work just getting our team kind of up to speed and working together, and now those guys are just lights out.”

The over-the-wall crew under Daniels ranks fourth in median four-tire box time, up from 17th in 2020.

“Knowing that one of our strengths is physically pitting the car, the guys do such a good job,” Daniels said. “I’m actually excited when I see a green-flag pit cycle come around because I know that’s one of our strengths.”

Pit cycle execution was key in Larson’s second-place finish in Darlington, in which Daniels’ designs helped earn 11 positions across four cycles, and Charlotte, where Larson retained leads on all four green-flag stops en route to his Coca-Cola 600 victory.

“We study a lot (for) maximizing pit-ins,” said Daniels, who also took to feeding Larson track surface data upon learning the driver’s studiousness in advance of his dirt racing endeavors. “Kyle is really good at that. He’s great at deep braking zones and figuring out how to get the car whoa’d up when it’s moving around and it’s all over the place. It’s kind of natural for him.”

The deliberate study has made Daniels a far better strategist at the front of the field in 2021, necessary given the regularity of Larson’s leads. It’s a difficult feat the third-year crew chief attempts on a regular basis. The series-wide green-flag pit cycle retention rate for positions within the top five is 55%; Daniels’ rate is 28 percentage points better, faring as the best retention frequency in the series in such scenarios.

“Timing is (a) big thing, understanding the falloff in a race,” Daniels said. “Do you pit early? Do you pit late within the cycle? We’ve had to brush up a good bit on our own understanding of that last year to what we’ve taken this year.”

So far, it’s worked. The efflorescence of a budding strategist couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.