CONCORD, N.C. -- The Hendrick Motorsports crew chiefs are ready to get to Darlington Raceway for the first NASCAR Cup Series playoff race of the season.
The race callers for Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman all have their teams secured in the first round of the 2021 postseason by virtue of wins.
For Cliff Daniels, he and the No. 5 team have the entire Cup field hot on their heels. Larson currently leads the playoff drivers with 52 playoff points, 28 markers ahead of second place. To keep his crew calm, cool and collected, Daniels plans to keep doing exactly what his team has done all season long, even though it will be his first playoff season in his Cup career.
“Eliminate distraction, avoid the noise, and just stay in our lane,” Daniels said of his postseason strategy. “Staying in our lane sounds so simple and so basic, but we spent a lot of time over the winter to build a system and a process for how we race every week, from initially how the car is built to how we prepare it the week of.
“How we study our notes, how we go execute a race – that’s been our MO all season and we’ve raced hard to get as many stage points or stage wins as we can and we have raced hard to get as many wins as we can. That’s already a playoff mentality in itself. So, hopefully, that mindset, that lane that we are in is robust enough to go get it done.”
While Larson, Daniels and the No. 5 crew are in the driver’s seat at the beginning of the championship, their teammates have a lot of momentum heading into the postseason, as well. Reigning Cup Series champion Alan Gustafson would love nothing more than to get Elliott and the No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE a consecutive title. For him, performing in the highest capacity is the only option as the crew prepares for another playoff run.
“You got to be operating at 100%,” Gustafson explained. “I feel we got the team, the car, the sponsors. We got what we need to do it; we just have to make sure that everybody is operating at their maximum ability and if we do that, I feel very confident that we can compete with anybody. That’s it and peaking at the right time and all those things you hear from Chase, that’s what it’s about. Just getting everything working to see what’s optimal. (We’re) trying to get that.”
Like Daniels, No. 24 crew chief Rudy Fugle will be heading to his first playoffs in his Cup career. The feat is especially impressive for Fugle, who joined Hendrick Motorsports at the beginning of the season to reunite with Byron.
Fugle’s first season at the highest level of stock car racing includes one win, nine top-five finishes and 16 top-10s, which includes streak of 11 top-10 results in a row. Fugle admitted his anticipation but is following the mindset of his fellow crew chiefs for the upcoming 10-week stretch.
“(I’m) just super excited,” Fugle said. “I am really proud of this team, and I am really proud to work for Hendrick Motorsports and represent our sponsors. I’m trying to treat it like a lot of the other playoff races in the other series that I have been through and won championships in. (I) just try to use those moments and that experience to help me do it in a different series.
“I can’t wait to get to Darlington and get a shot at winning the race and maybe punching our ticket to get through the first round in week one.”
No. 48 crew chief Greg Ives is taking each race to look for opportunities to find a win. That strategy has proven to be golden for Bowman and his crew after they used smart race strategies, fast pit stops and clean driving to get their three wins this season.
“Some of the tracks where we had weaknesses before we’re winning at,” Ives said. “I think, for us, it’s a great opportunity to go out there, transfer to each round – whether it’s winning or points – and end up in the final four. I feel like we have a high percentage of opportunity to get that done. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication and executing each race to do so. … You know it’s a strong field when that many cars are winning each week and you have to have it all put together. For 10 races, mistakes can’t happen, and you have to be your best.”
The playoff event at Darlington Raceway will be Sunday at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.