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


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.

RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors


RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season


NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.


Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota


Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.