CONCORD, N.C. – Cliff Daniels is a racer.
“It’s always been in my blood,” the new No. 48 team crew chief said.
Daniels got into racing at a young age as his father drove late models at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Virginia, near the Daniels family’s hometown of Smithfield.
“I remember seeing photos of myself as a child in Victory Lane with him,” he said. “Naturally, there was just kind of a passion that was inherent there.”
It was when he received a go-kart as a child and began driving and working on it that it “really just kind of clicked” for him.
He began competing in Bandolero cars as a 9-year-old and went on to win Legends races at Langley in his teens before ultimately pursuing a different path toward a career in motor sports.
“Going into college, I had an opportunity to get a mechanical engineering degree and kind of pursue more of the math and science behind the racing part that I was so passionate about of working on a car and making it faster,” Daniels explained. “So, I did drive for a long time, from go-karts to Legends cars to late-model stock cars. I was thankful for the time that I had to do that – I think it taught me a lot.”
He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with a degree in mechanical engineering, and now, after working as a race engineer at Hendrick Motorsports starting in the 2014 season, he’s set to climb atop the pit box this weekend at Watkins Glen International for the first time as a crew chief.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has no doubt that Daniels’ racing history has served him well in his career and will continue to do so in his new role.
“Our racing backgrounds, although they aren’t identical, the fact that he’s raced himself and driven cars, there’s just a communication style between us since he’s been behind the wheel of a car that we can just talk on a deep level,” Johnson said.
The driver and crew chief’s similarities don’t stop there, a discovery Daniels made over his years working with Johnson as a No. 48 team race engineer.
“My relationship with Jimmie has really grown over the last four or five years that we’ve worked together,” the crew chief said. “It’s so strong in the common bonds that we have from the fitness and exercise to our passion for racing, the way that we see and talk about the dynamic of our team and of the car and executing throughout a race weekend.
“That level of communication, the bond and relationship that we have there is going to be a lot of fun to tap into, to expand and really to carry out our goals.”
Johnson recalled competing in Jimmie Johnson Foundation triathlons with Daniels several years ago, and Daniels noted that it was Johnson who originally got him into cycling.
“There are a lot of commonalities there that have helped us always have a strong relationship,” Johnson said.
The driver-crew chief duo hope that their relationship – as well as the relationship Daniels cultivated with many of the members of the No. 48 team in his years with the group – will pay dividends quickly as they embark on the final five races of the regular season and eye a trip to NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Johnson currently ranks 17th in the point standings, just 12 points below the cutoff line to make the 16-driver playoffs.
The driver shared that the team’s mindset is straightforward – “we need to keep improving and we need to make the playoffs.”
“My expectations for the team are really just to tap into the strength that we have there,” Daniels said. “We have such a solid group of guys under us, there’s a lot of confidence to be taken from that.”
Seeing how his new crew chief has approached races as an engineer for more than four seasons, winning a championship in 2016 in the process, Johnson has no doubt that the team is in good hands in the home stretch of the season.
“Cliff’s intensity is something that I think will be really good for our team,” the driver said. “I think that he operates at a very high level in stressful environments. He’s been tested in those environments in winning a championship with us in 2016, plenty of race wins.
“I really feel like his personality suits the role of a crew chief and that he’ll do very well in that role.”