CONCORD, N.C. -- Entering the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, many expected driver Kyle Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels to win a race or two, but not even the faces of the No. 5 team could have imagined that they would dominate the field throughout the year and become the Cup Series champions.
Before being paired up when Larson was signed to Hendrick Motorsports, Larson had six Cup wins to his name while Daniels had zero. Although the pair was confident that they would do well this season, the way they dominated Cup races was a very exciting and welcomed surprise.
“I never really dreamt of winning a Cup Series championship, or championships in anything, really,” Larson said. “I’ve always chased wins – even in the Cup Series, I’ve never really had a ton of success before this year, so it felt so far away from being real. Coming to a team for the first year, it didn’t seem 100% realistic that you could do it in the first year. I think now that I have done it, I can dream about winning others. And that’s definitely a goal of mine; to be a multi-time Cup Series champion.”
While Daniels is thrilled to have earned 10 wins, plus the All-Star Race victory, in a single season, he credited the entire team effort to keeping the pedal to the metal throughout the season, especially during the playoffs. Daniels admitted he didn’t take a traditional crew chief approach to preparing for races with Larson since the latter isn’t a traditional student of the game. Instead, he trusted Larson to keep his mind sharp doing what he loves best – competing in all sorts of races, including Cup, late models, midgets and sprint events.
“We certainly had to build as we went. We knew each other from years past but not at the capacity to what it’s going to take be a Cup crew chief and driver combination,” Daniels explained. “I heard people in the past kind of question the work ethic he would put in leading up to a race, and when you see the way he performs on track, I almost couldn’t believe that. There has to be something he’s doing to prepare himself to be that good in that many types of cars. What it is is just racing. That’s the way his mind works. He is so good at getting in and going fast in so many different types of cars. …
“Once I identified that and got to talk to his old crew chief Paul Silva and his late model crew chief Kevin Rumley, I did get a chance to go to a couple of races and witness it live and in person and see it and feel it. That was really cool for me to get to know that side of him better and know that we didn’t need him to come into the shop and talk shop with us on the nuts and bolts of the car because he was still doing his own homework in the way that best suited him, and that was a fantastic aspect of our team and our relationship to have.”
Daniels’ flexibility and Larson running bonus dirt races during the week of the Cup season turned out to be the recipe the No. 5 team needed to be successful. Larson has said running dirt races keeps his mind sharp during the Cup season and allows him to see and feel out situations on the track that he might not be able to sense otherwise.
For Larson, Daniels’ leadership and communication are what helped him transition well into Hendrick Motorsports’ stable and what made them click from the beginning. Larson said their trust in each other was paramount, adding that it’s hard not to respect the young crew chief for how he works with his team.
“I think what makes him stand out above others is how he treats others,” Larson said. “The level of respect he has for everyone in the shop, the standard that he holds everyone to, and they have a lot of respect for him in return and they know he holds them to a high standard. They’re always working as hard as they can and they’re always acting professional. Just how he leads is what makes him the best.”
The celebration will continue for Larson and Daniels next week when they are honored at the NASCAR end-of-year banquet. The event will air on Dec. 4 at on NBCSN starting at 7 p.m. ET.