CONCORD, N.C. – Cliff Daniels has been atop a pit box countless times in his career. But last weekend at Watkins Glen International brought a seat change for the new No. 48 team crew chief.
He acknowledged that while it was a surreal feeling to take on the new role for the first time, he was focused on the task at hand.
“Yes, it was interesting walking up the ladder to get on top of the pit box and sit down on that seat, but really quickly I had to put my game face back on and dig into our notes and dig into our strategy and make sure we called a good race,” Daniels said.
The race itself began well for the No. 48 team, as Jimmie Johnson rolled off the grid inside the top 10 thanks to a strong qualifying effort. He used that position to his advantage, picking up extra point for top-10 finishes in both Stage 1 and Stage 2.
After a bit of pit road strategy by Daniels and the No. 48 team, Johnson looked to be in position to climb even higher in the top 10 as the rest of the field cycled through green-flag pit stops. However, contact from a competitor sent the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 toward the tire barrier and did not allow the plan to fully play out.
“We scored points in both stages, which was nice,” Johnson said. “We were setting up for a top-eight to top-10 finish and got drove through.”
In the end, Johnson took the checkered flag in 19th but the extra stage points gained helped move him into a tie for the 16th and final spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs in the current standings with four races remaining in the regular season.
Daniels said the team recognizes a lot can change in the standings in that span, so the group is doing everything it can to take advantage of the areas it can control.
“In all of our team meetings, in every huddle that we have, we’re always making sure that we maximize our game right now without stubbing our toe,” the crew chief said. “So, we want to make sure our car is well-prepared and our strategy is sound and solid.”
He noted that being elevated to crew chief last Monday made for a week that was “incredibly busy” leading up to Watkins Glen. This week, as the team prepared to head to Michigan International Speedway, was a little more “routine, for lack of a better word.”
“We feel a little bit more caught up – we can breathe just a little bit,” Daniels said. “But with that we’re kind of keeping the pressure on ourselves to make sure we’re covering every detail and unearthing every stone that we need to.”
This Sunday brings a new challenge at Michigan. It’s a track where Johnson has won before, and earlier this season he crossed the finish line 15th.
Daniels believes the lessons learned from the June race at the track will pay off this Sunday.
“In that two-month timeframe, we’ve still continued to develop and improve in many areas, so I think just the inherent improvement in our cars is going to make us better,” he said. “We have definitely learned a few things about how to get around Michigan and what this package takes. You know now that we’ve done it once that we can apply those thoughts and theories and make another step of improvement there.”
He was appreciative of the opportunity to take on the role of crew chief for the first time in his career last weekend, and now he knows there’s more work to do to close this season in the way the entire No. 48 team would want.
“Overall, there was just a lot of excitement with the team, with Jimmie, and I’m really thankful for just the energy level we had and the enthusiasm,” Daniels said. “Everyone really dug in and worked hard. That part was really cool to experience.”
Friday evening, Johnson qualified 12th at Michigan, and the seven-time Cup Series champion said the speed in the No. 48 Ally Chevy and the communication he’s had with Daniels were “remarkable.”
The No. 48 team is full-speed ahead with a goal in its sights and Daniels leading the charge.
“The vibe of the team is energized to not only make it into the playoffs, but go into the playoffs with strength to make a good run,” the crew chief said. “I think exciting days are ahead.”