NASCAR Media Conference
Sunday, November 7, 2021
An Interview with:
THE MODERATOR: We will continue with our post-race press conference with two members of our championship team, the 2021 champion crew chief, and that’s Cliff Daniels, and the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion owner, Rick Hendrick. Congratulations, gentlemen. Maybe give us some opening remarks on the night and the season, championship season.
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, I guess I would say first, this year, throughout the entire season, our team pushed so hard. Sounds easy to say. Of course all teams push hard.
But it all came down to the final pit stop. And I have always pushed our guys so hard back at the shop, the guys working on the car, the guys pitting the car, and to see them shine in a moment where they could shine I think is just incredible. And then of course Kyle on the restart and really all day long Kyle staying in the game was just incredible.
It takes so many people back at the shop at Hendrick Motorsports to get Kyle back after he was out last season, there’s so many people behind all of this, I couldn’t be more thankful, and what it took to get today done was a really big deal for our company and for our team.
So big thank you to Mr. H, everyone in the Hendrick family, Hendrick Automotive Group that’s been sponsoring us most of the year. And I know what a big deal it was so them, Chevrolet, all the guys behind us, and everybody back in the shop, really cool day.
THE MODERATOR: Mr. H, you want to give us your perspective, please?
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, it didn’t look too good there with about 35 laps to go. Yeah, made a great stop, and those four cars were pretty equal all day. At certain times our cars were better and certain times the Toyotas were better. We were just fortunate to have that caution, and the guys just knocked out a really good stop and we were able to hold them off.
Real proud of Cliff and Kyle. I remember when Cliff didn’t know who the driver was going to be this year. I said, I think you’ll be happy.
Were you happy?
CLIFF DANIELS: Oh, of course.
Cliff, the speed of the pit stop was important, but how important was having the first pit stall?
CLIFF DANIELS: Very important, and that came from qualifying, which — it’s funny because earlier Kyle said he didn’t know that qualifying mattered all that much. Well, it absolutely did, to get that pit stall. What a big deal that was.
I think he was saying that more in the context of there’s going to be an ebb and flow to the race, guys are going to be up front, you’re going to be not up front. I know that that’s how he meant that comment when he made it, but it was pretty funny to me to hear him say that.
But knowing that we had pit stall 1, I think we had pit stall 1 for either the last four or five races of the year. So that was a really comfortable spot for our guys to be in. They have pitted from the lead a lot. They have pitted from at the cusp of getting the lead a lot, so they know how to be tough, so that was a big deal.
Kyle wasn’t alone. The narrative all week was from all the Championship 4 teams, aside from yours, we’re not going to put any emphasis on qualifying because the top 4 guys get top 4 pit selections. Did you guys put emphasis on it? Obviously that was a big key was winning the pole and being able to get that stall?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, all of our homework was done on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and I guess a little bit Thursday on qualifying. But none while we were at the track, which sounds crazy to say. We knew on Tuesday that we were going to do top 3 and 4 coming to the green, which we did. We were going to run top 1 and 2 on the money lap, which was lap 1, and then just pray, and 3 and 4, which is exactly what he did, and we got a pole by a tenth and a half.
So the plan that we established on Tuesday for how to go qualify is exactly what Larson executed, which is just incredible.
Honestly, that had nothing to do with the car, that was all him.
Do you think he benefited at all from having a plan, where other teams, I think some teams didn’t make mock runs in qualifying?
CLIFF DANIELS: Well, we didn’t make a mock run, either, and that was kind of by design. Big thank you to Greg Ives and the 48 team because there were some things we were thinking about doing in a mock run that was a little different than what we had done all of the Hendrick cars in years past, and the 48 tried that out in practice with Alex, and it went okay. They actually looked pretty good on their mock run.
If it weren’t for that data point to help tell me what to do with the car, just to get it close, I knew Larson was going to nail it of course either way, but that helped us get where we needed to be.
So the 48 doing the Q run in practice that we did not, coupled with our prep Monday and Tuesday, I think is what made the difference.
Do you think you had the fastest of the four cars?
CLIFF DANIELS: Absolutely not, no, we were terrible halfway through the race. We were — terrible is a strong word, but compared to our standards this year that I never expected to set the bar that high to ourselves, where we could go dominate and lead laps, we were not where we needed to be.
I am familiar with what he needs to be comfortable in a car, and unfortunately we did not give him that for most of the race today. We had to make a lot of adjustments. There was a wrench in the window every single pit stop. We knocked in rubbers. We did all sorts of — every spectrum of air pressure that you could try, even one by accident that helped us.
Even the final pit stop the guys had an amazing stop, was all four tires had different air pressure, it was a track bar change and tape, and they still won the race off pit road, so that was pretty cool.
Denny said (indiscernible)?
CLIFF DANIELS: I believe it. Yeah, we were tied for third.
Rick, talking with Jeff Gordon in Victory Lane and he was talking about the beginning of the year maybe a little bit of reservations of how much racing to allow Kyle to do beyond this series, and Jeff said he was for it, but he said you kind of were more the logical mind and had some issues or concerns. How were you kind of convinced to allow him to do these things to where he’s not only won here but won a lot of major events throughout the country on dirt?
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, you know, when you talk to a driver and you know in his heart that it’s really important to him, and I told him, I said, Look, I don’t want you to get hurt. He said, It makes me better. It keeps me sharp. He said, I think it helps me in the Cup car. So I just agreed to let him do it.
You know, of course you have reservations, but he convinced me he wasn’t going to get hurt. I’m going to hold him to that.
Were you concerned with him — obviously I know you wanted him to tone it back during the playoffs, but how much of a concern was it he wasn’t going to be able to do as much racing at this point because that was kind of his DNA?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, you know, he agreed. We talked about it. He said, When we get in the playoffs, I’m going to back off, and he did. I think his focus was he wants to win races. He wants to — the Cup deal is his main job, and he knows that.
He wants to win every race.
He convinced me, and I think Cliff and I talked about it. And we talked to him about it, and we said, Now, we don’t want you getting in late in the middle of the night to get in a Cup car. If you want to run during the week, you can do that.
It all worked out.
I’m curious, everybody talks about what a special talent Kyle is, a special athlete. You obviously also had the opportunity to work with Jimmie, but when you work with somebody like that, how has Kyle challenged you, maybe not directly, but just to work with a talent like that, to know what is there, how does he challenge you, and how do you have to challenge that type of talent, even for as motivated as he may be, to remain up high as opposed to being comfortable with what he does?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, really good question. The first thing that I would say, he grew up dirt racing out west. I grew up pavement racing on the East Coast. You literally could not get farther apart on the spectrum of racing.
The connection that we had was our passion for racing, so yes, I grew up pavement racing on the East Coast, very specific types of racing, very specific way that you progress through the different series. So that was what I was accustomed to.
Then getting to know him, there was this entire different world of dirt racing that I had really only had small exposure to, some friends in college, maybe some friends in high school a little bit that I kind of learned there, but I took it upon myself to consider myself the weak link between the two of us and that I needed to learn the discipline of dirt racing and get to know Kevin Rumley that was his late model crew chief, get to know Paul Silva, his sprint car crew chief, which I’m very thankful I got to know both of those guys.
I went to late model races, I went to midget races, I went to sprint car races just to learn that discipline to understand the language that they speak and to understand when he says that racing three or four nights a week makes him better, what does that mean? What does that look like?
I know Mr. H talked about earlier that having him not race during the playoffs was a little bit of a safety factor for us, but honestly I was kind of worried for the opposite, because he raced all season long during the week, and when we won our — we were Turn 3 at Pocono away from winning five weekends in row, it would have been the fourth points race but five weekends in a row. He was racing two or three nights a week then, and I was getting so much information from him about himself, like he was up front every night, and if he got beat by somebody on a restart, he would tell me what he did wrong.
And it would help me learn what he needed to look for out of himself and out of the car, whether dirt or pavement or any series moving forward. So that information to me was really invaluable because I don’t know how else I would have gotten it.
Even if we had Cup practice and Cup qualifying, I would not have seen Kyle Larson on the front row of some race getting beat by anybody that he could then tell me, Hey, man, when this guy beat me, this is what I did wrong, and I could see this playing out in a Cup race or sprint race or late model race or whatever.
That perspective for me taught me a lot so that when we talked during the week of our approach for a Cup race, not only the Cup race in its entirety, but like, Hey, man, how do you win the last restart? How do you set up a guy to pass for the win, whether it’s at the end of a playoff race or not, championship race or not, how do you position yourself? How do I make adjustments to the car? How does he see what he needs to see? That meant so much to me throughout the year.
I know it did to him. I don’t know that he recognized it at first, that I was learning that much from him; but later in the year, especially in the playoffs, he knew the page that I was on, kind of learning from him and, again, trying to understand that world and understand him more, that I could put underneath of him what he needed to go get it done.
We were the third or the fourth place car for most of the day today. For the final restart, we made a handful of adjustments, had an amazing pit stop, and our car held off everyone in the field for the final run of the race. Well, I made a lot of adjustments to do that because I knew what he needed, if that makes sense.
All of that — I know I’m rambling a bit, but all of that led us to that final pit stop, those final adjustments to get it done today.
Cliff, you just said that you got the car — made a lot of adjustments. How much is Kyle Larson responsible for those last 30, 40 laps?
CLIFF DANIELS: He’s responsible for sitting on the pole, which is stall 1. Stall 1 is responsible for part of the equation that led to the last pit stop. 90 percent of the equation was the guys having an amazing stop. 10 percent of the equation was stall 1. And then the last 25 laps I would attribute a lot to him because he knew what he needed to do up front.
I told him when we were standing on the stage in Victory Lane, I told him, Man, your patience, when you got out front — and no, the car wasn’t perfect, but he knew how to not miss a corner and miss his line and overrun himself to then have a good exit, maintain his pace ahead of Martin. That was pretty crucial.
Yes, we had some adjustments in the car. Absolutely we had an amazing stop. But I think if it weren’t for his maturity as a driver, not only is he one of the greatest talents in the world currently, but I think he’s now set himself at a level where people can consider him an incredibly smart racer. I think that was the difference at the end.
For Rick, kind of the perception of Kyle was that he’s always more into sprint cars, and while this was a challenge, this wasn’t his huge love. I’m curious if that perception, A, ever made you wonder whether you should hire him, and B, was there anything that you saw this year that made you think that that perception is not accurate?
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, absolutely. I had heard the stories that he couldn’t close, that he was fast and he would run near the wall and he’d wreck.
When we got him in the car, it was pretty obvious that he was pretty quick, that he could run the whole race and he was fast and he took care of the car.
No, I knew his talent from watching him when he was driving for Chip and could see some of the things he could do with the car. So he’s impressed me.
I think as Cliff just said, I think his ability to know how to race has impressed me a lot this year because he’s fast, but he knows how to race, and he knows when to race and when he needs to just take care of it.
Cliff, you may not be aware, but the 11 and 19 cars actually sent out empty haulers and kept the cars back on the 18 and 20 to massage the cars. Did you do anything like that? I know you had extra time to work on the cars, but did you hold your cars back at all?
CLIFF DANIELS: No, we didn’t. The one thing that I would be remiss if I didn’t say, Jesse Saunders, our car chief, has worked his entire career to be able to be on this stage today, and I’m really sad that we failed tech twice and Jesse got basically pulled out of the racetrack.
Monday when we got back from Martinsville, Jesse was at the shop at 5:30 a.m. He worked until 2:00 a.m. that night. He was back at 6:00 a.m. the next day. He worked until midnight on Tuesday, which is when we loaded our cars.
We had talked about sending the primary haulers out empty with our cars because there was a NASCAR parade in town in Phoenix that of course we didn’t want the haulers to miss, but we had a deadline that we had to hit, which 10:00, midnight, somewhere in there on Tuesday night, that if it weren’t for Jesse personally and the work that he did, I know we would not have made it, and I know we would not have had the car prepared as well as it was.
I only made it to midnight on Monday, and I flopped out and then I came in and it was probably 7:00 a.m. on Tuesday, I guess it was. And he was 2:00 and 6:00, if that makes sense. That was the difference.
I thought I had heard that the JGR cars had done that. Obviously it was a tight timeline trying to get everybody out here to Phoenix safely, making it in time for the NASCAR parade in town in Phoenix and still be able to be on track on Friday. So big thanks to the guys back at the shop, and I’m telling you, Jesse Saunders is a BA. He came in for the celebration.
Rick, Chip Ganassi waves goodbye to NASCAR after 20 years. Your thoughts on competing against him and knowing him throughout that entire time?
RICK HENDRICK: Chip is a good friend and a great competitor. What he’s done in open wheel and the championships he’s won, we built motors for him for I don’t know how many years. He’s been a good friend. I hate to see him go. I hate to see him retire from NASCAR. But he’s got his plate full. I think he’s in IMSA now, off road and INDYCAR.
I guess he thought it was time. But he surprised a lot of us.
Rick, this is the first time where somebody has won the NASCAR Cup Series championship in their first season with you. Just looking at Kyle Larson’s performance during the championship run, how does it stack up to other championship runs you’ve been a part of?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, I think back to Jimmie Johnson, and I think Kyle broke Jeff Gordon’s record laps led, so I’ve been very fortunate to have some champions that have won a lot of races and led a lot of laps.
I think the competition is pretty fierce. I’m not saying it was any harder today than it was back when Jeff or Jimmie won, but I think — I’m just surprised that Kyle and Cliff gelled as quickly as they did.
Our crew chiefs have worked so hard together. We say we’re one team with four cars. Chad Knaus is back in the shop. When you put the talent of our crew chiefs and you look at William Byron’s maturity and how he’s raced this year, Alex won four, Chase won two, I think we were, what, 17, 18 races, the organization really is as strong across the board that I think we’ve ever had in balance, all four cars.
Cliff, you talked about processing all of that information that Kyle gives you and how you’re able to translate that into the car. What have you learned about yourself in taking that information and actually being able to make those adjustments as efficiently as you guys have been able to?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, I think I’ve learned to still trust some of my experience in racing. Obviously through the last three or four years where the teams that I’ve been on and the team with Jimmie, we didn’t get all the things right from the team side of things. We didn’t get the results that we needed. Maybe didn’t always make the best adjustment.
I have been in racing since I was four or five years old, and my dad was racing late models at Langley Speedway. There’s so much that I’ve learned along the way, and I have learned from the incredible leadership at Hendrick Motorsports from Jeff Andrews, Chad Knaus, guys like Alan Gustafson. He’s been a big role model of mine.
And then connecting with Larson this year, to piece together what I know of racing from my background, what he knows of racing from his background, and then to still go with the gut racer instinct, we did a lot today.
For example, today we ran six laps, caution came out, and we were the only car that pitted. Marty Snyder with NBC came down, he’s like, Man, is anything wrong? Why did you pit? I’m like, Well, the run is about to be 68 laps still. If it goes green, we’re going to win the stage. We have the best tires. I know we are. Everybody thought I was crazy at the time. Heck, I almost thought I was crazy at the time. But I knew, I knew, I knew from looking at the lap times, from lap 1 to lap 5, the field had already fallen off one to two tenths already on lap 5 or 6.
So yes, we were alone as being the car that pitted, but that is an example where I knew, I knew, because we had studied it all week long at a situation like that, to go ahead and take the tires, and then if the caution comes out later, you stay out and you get your track position back, which we did. Or if the caution doesn’t come out, you restart 25th, which we did. And I was pretty confident we were going to drive back up, just because of the tire life difference, drive back to the front.
I’m answering your question with an example. There’s an example.
These were the last pit stops with five lug nuts. Obviously pit stops are still going to be important next year with the Next-Gen car, but what is the significance that you won this championship in large part due to efforts that will be used in other ways in 2022?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, it’s a big deal. I think Mr. H looked at where our pit crews were the last couple years and he kind of tasked all of us with improving over-the-wall performance, of course we needed to improve car performance, needed to improve in every area. And the crew chiefs, Chad Knaus, a lot of guys, we all spent time really trying to refine our pit crews and keep pushing them the way we practice.
Big credit to the coaches, the staff back at the shop. I want to say there’s six or eight people that are really in charge of our pit crew department. They have done a great job all year long of pushing our guys every week. And I know that sounds basic and simple, but it is that simplicity of the reps, the routine, the pushing, the workout days, the practice days that made the difference for us at the end of the day today, which we all know if the 5 car didn’t win the race off pit road, we probably don’t win the race, we probably don’t win the championship.
That was the difference, but it wasn’t by accident. There was a lot of hard work, a lot of good people, a lot of good prep behind that that started a year, two years ago in building the process to where we have it today.
Cliff, last race with this generation car. You’ve talked about how special this car and this era of motorsports is to you. Certainly winning the championship and winning 10 races today is the most special part of today, but is there any added significance to you to kind of send this car and send this era of motorsports off with a win?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a big deal. I guess if I back up in the week, it kind of hit home for me when on Monday and Tuesday, a lot of the guys that normally you see in their specific department for chassis construction, body construction, finish fab, whatever it may be, I see them maybe weekly, bi-weekly, for how they operate and how they work. We had a lot of those folks that came up to the race shop floor to be there with the cars on the setup plate, to be with the teams.
We had a lot of those guys, a lot of the craftsmen, the fabricators, the guys that really put their heart and soul and their craft into building these cars. We had a lot of them around Monday and Tuesday until we loaded.
That was a really bittersweet moment because those guys had such a hand not only in building our cars this year, but I know we as a company were really proud that we have a lot of guys that have been at our company for over 15 or 20 years. There are so many of those guys, those folks that have been around for so long. They’ve contributed to all the success of Hendrick Motorsports.
To have them around to see the look on their face that they were sending their best out the door but also knowing that life is going to be different next year, I think we’re all excited in the anticipation for what next year is, but it’s definitely different.
That moment kind of hit home for me, and I think it did for a lot of folks, to see those guys on the shop floor kind of sending their goodbyes, sending their best wishes to their final true piece of art that is a NASCAR race car Gen-6, the way we’ve known it.
Rick, you hired Kyle presumably because you believed in him, you thought he could do this, you thought he could get here. Did you think that he would get here and be here and be a champion this quickly?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, no. If you asked me did I think he could win 10 races and win the championship, I mean, I thought he’d be fast, I thought the team would be good, but I had no idea when the season started that we could win 18 races and he could win 10.
No, you hope that you can be competitive. You hope you can run well. I think as Cliff said, we worked really hard when the 1LE Camaro came out. We were behind with the original car. But the 1LE put us in the ballgame. So we started running well and winning with that car.
I hate to see it go. I think Chase had the last — we started building chassis in ’87, and Chase’s car was the last chassis we built today.
Rick, I think this is your 14th championship; I’m sure they’re all special, they all have special moments, including this one with Kyle and his story. But I just wondered what it felt like to have a championship with the 5 car and the colors that it represents for you and for the whole organization.
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, I think my wife and I, when we watch that car race, it just does something to us, paying tribute to our son, the number, the colors. Then Hendrick Cars got on it, and they got so excited about it, and we were getting to do another sponsorship, they wanted the car.
It does, the whole company, it just means so much to them and our organization and the automobile side. They were sending texts and everybody — I love that color. I love that car. So it’s very, very special to be able to win that and celebrate his colors, his number and his life.
Mr. H, you’ve had a lot of successful partnerships with your race teams, and this one put together one of the best seasons in NASCAR history. What do you see in this team, and how far do you think they can go?
RICK HENDRICK: I mean, I look at the age of our guys, and I’m amazed at how far William has come and how he’s up front every week. He’s good on short tracks or speedways. Alex won four.
I think with their age and the way — the main thing is the chemistry inside our company, the sharing and the working together. The crew chiefs — our drivers, when they debrief, they listen to each other and they share information and they try to make the other guy better.
It’s never been — the chemistry in our company has never been this good. With everybody’s age, and I’m hoping that we — I don’t know if we can do this again, but I hope we’ve got a lot of winds ahead of us.
But specifically the 5 team, 11 wins, the all-time laps led, why did they do that in their first year together?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, I think we had a great baseline, but Cliff is a great leader. We could see the momentum coming toward the end of the year with Jimmie, and then Kyle steps in to a program with the cars that were all — if you look at what they’ve accomplished this year with all the wins and everybody won races, I think the table was almost set for him.
Now, when he got in the car, his talent did the rest. These guys, the chemistry between the two, and if you watch this guy, he’s like rock solid. He doesn’t shake or get nervous, and I go whacko trying to watch what they do.
I think sometimes you just hit on something, and we really hit on something with these two.
Cliff, he said you’re rock solid. We’ve all sort of noticed that. You’ve worked with Ray and you’ve worked with Chad —
RICK HENDRICK: Chad raised him.
What are you pegged at normally? What’s your resting heart rate, and what’s a Cliff Daniels party look like?
CLIFF DANIELS: My resting heart rate is too high. I did not sleep any last night. I have not slept any before any Cup race all season long, just so you know. Larson asked me today, Did you sleep last night? I’m like, No, I didn’t sleep last night. I haven’t slept before a race all season long. I mean, even — pick a random race in the middle of the year. I did not sleep. I’m just telling you, I didn’t —
RICK HENDRICK: That’s a total surprise to me. I’m shocked.
CLIFF DANIELS: You can ask my wife, and I promise you all the time she lectures me: You have to get sleep, you have to get sleep. I cannot sleep because I hold myself to a really high standard, and I think the folks around me know that.
We have the character of guys on our team that I can hold them to that standard. You can ask any one of them today. I made fun of our target guy, Cesar Villaneuva, who’s been in the sport a long time, had a great time with him today. Had a great time with Steven Legendre, our engine tuner. Jesse Saunders, our car chief who wasn’t even here today, I was talking smack to him over texts.
We keep it fun, but part of the reason we can keep it fun is they know I’m going to hold myself to a high standard. So if I hold them to a high standard, it’s equal. They know I’m going to beat myself up as hard as I beat them up. They know that.
For me the celebration, if I make it through tonight, which I’m sure Larson is going to try to kill me tonight — remember, I didn’t sleep last night. So if he tries to kill me tonight, which I’m sure he will, if I make it to tomorrow evening, I will be a long time with no sleep and, similar to that, in the meantime.
What do you do when you’re not sleeping?
CLIFF DANIELS: So last night I knew what was coming. I saw the writing on the wall. So I got in bed at probably 9:00 p.m. local time, and I saw every hour, every single hour all the way until I got up at 6:30, whatever. Somewhere around 2:00 a.m. I got up, drank some water, kind of walked around.
We stay right over here where the stadiums are. So I could see all the folks leaving after the hockey game, and they went out to the bars and stuff.
And I’m going to be honest, there’s some Bible devotionals that I read and watch and listen to, and did that in the middle of the night. And I knew that my anxiety that I’ve had all year long probably wasn’t warranted, but it’s still a real thing.
So when Larson was like, Man, you didn’t sleep last night? I was like, Dude, I haven’t slept all year. So I’m right where I should be. It’s okay. He’s like, Really? I didn’t know that. I’m like, Yeah, I hide it from you. It’s okay.
So, yeah, I never sleep the night before a Cup race. Probably never will. As long as he’s my driver, with Kyle Larson as your driver, you’re the weak link, not him. That’s the way I see it.
Cliff, you guys were getting ready for that final stop. You had everything set up, and looked like you were trying to seize an opportunity, trying to be ready for that. What did you see come off of the 13 that started getting you to lobby with the official that something came off?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, I got super amped up because the 13 car, I don’t know what led to it, but he came by us on the front straightaway, and about the time he crossed the start-finish line I saw a brake rotor five inches in length tumble down the front straightaway right in front of me, and I saw where it landed.
I started jumping up and down and trying to get John Manno (phonetic), the official that’s in our pit stall, his attention. I was screaming at Tyler, our spotter, on channel 2 because, number one, I didn’t want anything to happen to our car or any playoff car at that point. Even though we were running fourth. And of course, number two, I felt that there should have been a caution for that watching what happened right in front of me, just to reset the field and give us a shot. That’s what I saw.
Cliff, obviously this is just your second full-time season atop the box, and it kind of gives shades of Chad and Jimmie and the success that they had very early on, and now you have 10 races won and your first season winning and a championship to go along with it. How much do you think after working so closely with Chad he’s influenced the way you direct the team?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, he has for sure, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that if it weren’t for me — throughout the course of my time at Hendrick Motorsports, understanding the way that Mr. H has led our company, I still remember this so clearly like it was yesterday, it was 2018, our team — our company, excuse me, was not at all where it needed to be.
Mr. H stood up on stage as the leader of Hendrick Motorsports and said, Hey, I acknowledge that we’re not where we’re supposed to be, but we are going to take all the people in this room, we’re going to move some things around if we need to. But we’re not going to go fire a whole bunch of people. We’re going to take the people in this room and we’re going to lock arms and we’re going to get out of this together. That was in 2018.
You know all the statistics showed that 2017 and 2018 were not good years for our company. To build out of that, to where we are now, was first and foremost a testament to him.
And then of course the influence of Chad and of Jimmie on our team will always be there. Myself, I would say seven or eight other team members on the 5 team had been with Chad and Jimmie either for the seventh championship like I was in 2016. Some of the guys had been there even before that. We’ve all learned from them.
They were the true benchmark for a champion on and off the track for so many years that the threads of Chad and Jimmie are always going to be with us. I’ve also been fortunate to learn from guys like Alan Gustafson, whose approach is a little different from Chad. I think Alan probably sees the 30,000-foot view of life and your season and your approach week in and week out more than anyone.
And then Chad was the guy that has always pushed and focused on the tiniest little detail that you could possibly find on a race car to make it faster. If it weren’t for guys like that that I could learn from, and of course the leadership from Mr. H to keep our company together, to keep everybody rowing the canoe in the same direction, again, I know it sounds so basic and simple to say, but if it weren’t for that, our team would not be where it is today.
Talk about just three years ago when you did get tapped and brought up to the top of the box, did you think at that point that you could ever be sitting at the table here?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yes and no. The yes part is because with Mr. H, Jeff Andrews, Chad Knaus, all the other guys in our company that their passion for making sure that the crew chiefs, the teams, the company has the tools and the resources that we need, the people that we need to get it done, that’s a formula for success.
I’m not unique in sitting here in this position. Mr. H won the championship last year with Alan and Chase. He’s won it so many times with so many different crew chiefs and drivers that he knows the recipe to success. You know, then knowing the strength of our team, I knew that it could happen that way.
And I guess the no part to the question is nobody could ever dream of having a season like we’ve had this year. You can’t script this. You can’t even draw this up on paper. I think even winning one race a year in the Cup Series is a big accomplishment.
Then when you look at the season that we’ve had this season, honestly, it’s not sank in for me yet. It’s probably going to take a little while. It’s truly a dream come true.
Cliff, you mentioned Bible devotionals earlier; we know you value your relationship with God with all your posts on social media, especially saying “God is good” all the time. What would you say is one of those devotionals or Bible verses that you’ve held on throughout this year especially with it being so successful?
CLIFF DANIELS: There really hasn’t been one in particular, and I think Mr. H is pretty familiar with this. A guy named Mack Brock, he’s a Christian singer, been around a long time, part of Elevation Church, he actually came to Hendrick Motorsports this week on Wednesday.
I have looked up to him for a long time, and in my journey of faith and a lot of things that have happened in my life with my family, my parents, just different aspects of my life, I’ve always looked up to him.
We have a — it’s called the John Hendrick fellowship lunch. It’s every Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. So Mack Brock came and sang for us this week. Some of the messages that he had were so powerful, I think he even did his own unique message for Mr. H this week.
Every week I feel like God shows me something different. He shows our team something different.
Look, as someone who tries to show that I have a Christian faith, I know that I’m probably not the best example all the time, but I know that there is a higher power that’s led to the success that we’ve had this year, for what Mr. H has done for us this year. I’m always going to be the first to acknowledge that.
This week leading up to Phoenix and this weekend was really powerful to have Mack there. He texted me before the race, gave me some words of encouragement. That was pretty powerful.
When Larson crossed the line, you were beyond speechless, obviously. And then when you were done standing there for a good five, ten minutes, you just pointed up to the sky. What was going through your mind realizing that you had won it all?
CLIFF DANIELS: Well, it’s also surreal. If you ask any crew chief in the Cup garage, Hey, you’re going to win 10 races plus the All-Star and you’re going to win the championship, do you believe that’s going to happen? Everybody would be like, Man, that’s crazy.
The sport is so tough. The rules are tough by design, which is a good thing. The competition is so tough.
You can’t really script what has happened for our team this year, and I really think that it’s been God’s hands and what has led us to this point, giving Mr. H the vision to bring Kyle back and to mentor Kyle the way that he has, to put our team together with him, to even believe in our team. Like I didn’t even know we were a team worth believing in, to be honest with you, because the last two years left a lot to be desired.
So having that belief in us and just seeing the way that the year has gone, there’s been a lot of things that have worked out, including today. If the caution doesn’t come out today, the 19 wins the championship and the 5 car finishes fourth, let’s be honest. I know that. I’ll be the first one to acknowledge that.
But we stuck to our guns. We had a set of changes dialed up for the last pit stop. The guys knocked it out of the park, and the way it all worked out was truly a blessing.
Mr. H, given the history of No. 5, you’ve had tremendous talent behind that wheel, but I was thinking about it as you were answering questions, and to expand on what Jim had said, I do believe, and correct me if I’m wrong, it’s been 25 years, 1996, when Terry Labonte won the last championship in the No. 5. Can you tell me what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling when you think it’s been 25 years ago since the 5 won a championship?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, we kind of parked the 5 when Dale wanted to run the 88. When we brought it back, it was very special because it was our first number. Mark Martin did a heck of a job in it. He had a shot at a championship. Terry did an unbelievable job.
I don’t know if you remember here when he hit the wall and broke his hand and we thought he had to park — we didn’t think he could race, and he got injections in his hand and went out and got the job done in the backup car.
No, I don’t think so we’ve probably given the 5 a chance. But any time you have your first number and it’s got such a history with the family, it’s special.
Everybody in motorsports was really excited about bringing it back, and then the colors and all. I think there will be some more championships with the 5 car.
Cliff, you said a minute ago you can’t script what’s happened to this team this year. You’ve obviously spoken a lot this year about Kyle and the talent that he is. At any time did you think to yourself what he’s doing is impossible? Like to come back, be as good as he is, as fast as this team was, did it just ever seem like what he was doing was impossible?
CLIFF DANIELS: In a way, yes. I think for all the obvious reasons that you’re alluding to. But then in another way, no, because I think when you look at his Cup career, I wasn’t intimately involved in his Cup career before obviously this year. He did have a little bit of a stigma that he couldn’t close and he ran dirt tracks a certain way and the way he approached racing was a certain way.
I do think that there’s a level of maturity that he has now as a champion driver, as a race-winning driver, whether it’s on dirt or on the pavement; that when you hear the way he gets out of the car after winning a race and critiques himself and knows in the back of his mind what he can do better the next time, man, that separates the men from the boys.
And I really think his introspective look at himself, to know, hey, man, yeah, I won that race, but I didn’t do the best job on the restart, and yeah, I had a good 1 and 2 and that’s what won me the race. If I would have had a better restart and if I would have done A, B and C on the restart, I would have done better, that’s coming from a guy that just won the race, name the race, could be dirt, late model, sprint car or Cup car. He and I have had a lot of those conversations.
It kind of forced me halfway through the year to change my perspective from just always thinking I was the weak link and to try to give him what he needed in the car to then put myself in his head space to understand where he lives with himself and then to help it, to help him solve the equation when he scripted up the equation, hey, I’m leading a 410 World of Outlaws sprint car race with three to go, here’s the lane I’m going to choose, here’s how I’m going to do the restart, here’s how I’m going to go into Turn 1.
He and I have had those conversations. I’m not the first guy to know anything about 410 World of Outlaws sprint car racing. But he’s opened up enough with me to help strategize his mindset and his approach to that.
I also know that Josh Wise has been a big part of that. That has helped us a lot throughout the year. And we even talked this morning about really three different scenarios that could happen at the end of the race that he needed to be ready for on offense, on defense or anywhere in between. Connecting at that level is pretty powerful.
Rick, next week you have the opportunity to close out an NHRA championship with Greg Anderson; what would that mean?
RICK HENDRICK: That would be pretty special. When he broke the record, that was a big deal for us. Again, it’s got that paint scheme on it. I think a lot of Greg, and that would be really — I don’t know how we could cap off a year any more special than to have him win that championship and then the 5 car win the Winston Cup deal.
I know he wants it really bad, so fingers crossed.
Mr. H, Kyle talked about watching last year’s Cup championship in the Hendrick Motorsports war room as kind of this full-circle moment. I’m assuming you kind of helped put that together. I know you were here at the track, but what do you remember about those early moments, kind of signing him and bringing him on and getting comfortable with him?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, the more I was around Kyle, the more I appreciated the kind of person he was in and all the things he was doing out in charity. I think last week or the week before, he visited three food banks and gave out a ton of money.
I got to know the person. I knew the racer but got to spending time with him and his family and how dedicated he was to doing the right thing.
He’s done everything he could to get back into the sport and carry the — be something we’re all proud of and he’s proud of. He’s been more talented than I thought he was, and he’s been an unbelievable person. He’s got a big heart, and he’s done a lot of things that nobody in here knows about. He doesn’t try to get publicity, and he’s just a good human being, and he’s got a tremendous amount of talent.
I’ve watched him with his kids, just the family guy he is, and the way they traveled around, he and his wife, taking turns driving the motor home, going to sprint car races. He’s good people. I didn’t realize — I knew he had talent, but I didn’t know his soul. He has really impressed me with the individual that he is.
Earlier this year you talked about wanting to keep this band together and wanting William and Chase to eventually retire with you guys. Is that still the plan, and what’s the plan for Kyle?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, I want to try to keep him — I hope he retires with me. I really like our lineup right now. I like just the chemistry between the four drivers. That’s important, that they get along. Of course they want to beat each other, but I’ve got a lot invested in William. I’ve got a lot invested in Chase, Alex and Kyle. I hope we can keep the band together because we’ve got such a good core working together.
I can’t emphasize enough, you don’t hear any friction between our guys and our crew chiefs. They really work well together.
To me that’s what makes an organization work is all the people really pulling together wanting to —
CLIFF DANIELS: It’s because of his leadership.
RICK HENDRICK: Making it better. But anyway, talented people. Marshall Carlson back there, he’s the president, doesn’t get any credit. He’s in the background. He’s working with sponsors, taking care of things. My grandson, he’s — we hope that we race for many, many years to come.
We’re in the people business. I don’t care what kind of business you’re in. Our automotive group wants to win. They want to be number one. They want to be the best. It kind of trickles down through both organizations. I’m just blessed with having really, really good people that want to work together.
THE MODERATOR: Mr. H, Cliff, thanks so much for all the time. Congratulations on an outstanding season, and try to enjoy the off-season. I know it’s going to be busy.
CLIFF DANIELS: Last thing I want to say, you guys do so much for us. All year long, I know you have a tough schedule in everything you do. Thank you for covering our sport the way you do, covering our team the way you do. Very special season for us, and I know you guys probably don’t always get the thanks you deserve, but thank you.
RICK HENDRICK: Happy holidays.
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