HE MODERATOR: We are joined by the crew chief of the No. 5 Chevrolet, Cliff Daniels.
Cliff, what an amazing run there. You went through a little bit of everything today from speed to resilience to an amazing finish. Walk us through the race from your perspective.
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, for sure. I think I would summarize it as an all-around good team day. Contrary to some of the races we’ve had this year, I think today was about the things that actually worked out and went our way versus things that didn’t go our way.
Certainly after Kyle had the really loose moment off of two, we did get a little bit of damage from that, and the caution came out right away, which really saved that run for us. It let us get to work on the car again later in the race when we pitted from third.
Our pit crew did an amazing job, got us out with the lead, then Kyle did a great job at the end of the race managing tires, leading in the Next Gen car is really tough. Even Bell when he was out front wasn’t amazing. Bell, when he was second through fifth, was really good. A tough spot to be in. I thought Kyle did a great job managing that.
All in all, a really solid all-around team day.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll open the floor for questions.
Q. Cliff, Jeff was in here before you. We think they win the first race, you get this vacation time to think about Phoenix. He said not so much with the new car. From your perspective, why is that?
CLIFF DANIELS: I don’t know that it’s a lot different just because of the new car. To me, just from the team exercise dynamic of things, if we say we’re just going to cruise for the next two weeks, then you’re not operating with the edge that I think you’re going to need to win it in Phoenix.
There’s two more races to win. So now the way I see it is this. Now that we’re in the position that we’re in, we get to play those races to win, a late call, flipping a stage, if a caution comes out, whatever it may be, versus having to play the race for points. I think that’s the position it puts us in the next two weeks.
From a team exercise, all those other guys are so good, they’re going to be pushing hard to win the next two weeks. I think we have to match that intensity so we’re going into Phoenix with the right level of intensity ourselves, get there with strength.
Q. Near the end of stage one when the yellow came out, Bell went for two tires, but you took four. How did that set you up for the rest of the race?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, I mean, I think at that point the call could have gone either way. We put on our qualifying scuffs at that point. I don’t think anybody was going to waste an entire set of stickers.
The call was either going to be put on your scuffs with 15 to go or maybe take rights. I think you saw the mix of that from the field. Guys who took four scuffs, guys who took rights. Then, of course, that does save us a set of stickers for later in the race in case you need it. There were a lot of cautions, the way weird things played out. I was glad we had that set of stickers.
Q. How do you compare where your team is at this year compared to where you were at this stage a couple years ago when you won the championship?
CLIFF DANIELS: I think as a team, we are significantly stronger. Results don’t show it at all. If you look at the results chart, which I have in my office of the 5 team all year, it’s just up and down.
But the reason that I say that it is of course we’ve had two more years to gel together, to work together. The chemistry has only gotten stronger. But also because of what we’ve been through this year where what I alluded to with the up-and-down finishes. Let’s be honest, some of those up-and-down finishes we created, both the good and the bad.
It’s a really good team growth exercise to go through some of the tough times and learn how to communicate and lean on each other and find the core strength that you need to come out on the backside of a weekend, where maybe we screwed up or didn’t get the result that we needed. There’s just been a lot of learning and a lot of growth through that.
I think the two years under our belt mixed with such a volatile season that we’ve had, we’ve had to learn how to play tough and be resilient. I think our team is in a very, very strong position right now.
Q. You talked about that resilience. The timing of the caution, why was that so important for you to get that break then? Could you have continued throughout the course of that run without that caution and still been okay?
CLIFF DANIELS: I would say probably not. Was it 30 to go in the run still at that point? 25 to go, something like that?
Two things. With the big sideways moment off the corner, our right rear tire was significantly heated up and hot from what that was, plus we had the little bit of damage. Both of those doubling down on making our car too loose, which was already loose that run. That would have been a lot of factors working against us to go the next 25 laps.
After things settled back in, we were 2 to 3/10ths off the pace from what everybody was running in the top 10. Had that run carried out, we may have finished 14th or 15th, I don’t know. That really sets you up for an uphill battle for the rest of the day.
The timing of the caution probably saved our day in all reality.
Q. You came over the radio after the checkered and said a lot of blessings came this team’s way this weekend. What did you mean by that?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, I mean, my faith. My faith in Jesus Christ as a person this year has had to grow a lot because of what we’ve been through. I’ve had to learn how to be humble and smart and lean on the faith to get through a lot of situations.
I fully acknowledge that while we have complained some weekends that they haven’t gone the 5 team’s way, yesterday in practice we made it either 14 or 15 laps, and a chunk came out of our right rear tire as the tire was separating, but it never lost air and never crashed.
That is an instant away from us going to a backup car like the 9 car unfortunately had to. It starts with yesterday of that tire not completely failing.
Today, like I just mentioned a few moments ago, the caution kind of saved our day after we had the big moment off of two, and the adjustments we made in the car kind of helped the car throughout the day. Restarts worked out for us. Then the money stopper, we came down pit road third, came out with a lead. All of those things in my mind were a lot of blessings and went our way.
We’re not saying that things don’t happen for a reason in the past, but we certainly had some difficult days where we’ve walked away pretty sad and dejected. The big man upstairs was certainly looking out for us this weekend.
Q. (No microphone.)
CLIFF DANIELS: We did, yep. Really sideways off two. I think there’s a camera on the back straightaway that shows us off of two. The wall kind of saved us to keep from completing the spin. That knocks the tail over just a little bit, frees the car up.
Q. In Germany NASCAR is not so famous. For you, what makes NASCAR so special and what are the most important skills for a NASCAR driver like you?
CLIFF DANIELS: NASCAR driver like Larson.
I think what makes Cup racing so special in the context of global motorsports, I follow F1 a lot, I follow the INDYCAR SERIES a lot, those series are very tight. I would argue that INDYCAR is probably a little bit tighter than F1 as far as the strength of the grid goes.
But in Cup racing, there are legitimately 20 to 22 teams any given week that can win. That is very powerful. A lot of that is the parity of the Next Gen car, and a lot of that is you have a very collective, high IQ group of people here that are all operating at a very high level. Pit crews, drivers, teams. There is just so much commonality and so much parity in the way the top 20 to 22 teams are.
I would fully acknowledge that if restarts would have gone differently at some point in the day, a guy who ran on the backside of the top 10 or somewhere between the top five and top 10, I think of the 8 car, had a great day today. If things would have happened differently on pit road and the 8 car comes out with the lead, the 8 car probably wins. That’s just how competitive our sport is.
To me, to have international appeal, it’s got to rest on how tough it is to execute a Cup race nowadays and how tough the competition is. You are one fraction of an inch, one little moment away from either winning or not winning, which is a very razor thin margin that may not exist around the rest of the world.
Q. You alluded to the money stop. The 5 team is lights out on pit road. In the crucial moments, they’re always able to overcome. What is about that moment that the team is able to rally and execute?
CLIFF DANIELS: There’s a lot of experience on the team, which I think is very valuable. Guys who have been in the moment, been in that situation before. Plus, the talent. I mean, the talent is easy to speak to.
There’s a lot of really good, talented, fast teams on pit road. But the experience our guys have, how hard we push ourselves. We set our standard very high. We set our expectations very high.
If we don’t have a race that’s great on pit road, we go back, we talk about it, we beat each other up a bit, try to learn what we need to do to improve.
For a caliber of a group like that, where their experience speaks for itself, their accomplishments speak for themselves, they do a great job of continuing to be hungry for more, continuing to learn, continuing to get better.
Nobody rests on the wins of the past or the experience of the past. Those guys are always striving to get better. So it makes it a great combination on the money stop when you mix together that endeavor to continue to improve plus the experience they have.
They know how to have ice water in their veins and just get it done.
Q. I was asking Jeff earlier about tire issues from Saturday, more today. You were talking about Kyle’s resilience. What about the team and having to face those troubles on Saturday, then having that in the back of your mind when other cars are having tire issues, especially in the final stage? Did that ever cross your mind?
CLIFF DANIELS: I would say everything you just described was playing into my head throughout the whole race. The tire issues on Saturday were a little bit of a surprise I think to the field based on where everybody was on tire settings in the spring. Pace was certainly fast yesterday. Pace was fast today with the track temp being a little bit cooler, ambient air temperatures being a little bit cooler yesterday.
We knew overnight we had to go a different direction on where we were on air pressure and be a lot more conservative. With that brings a little bit of unknown on getting your car balanced right.
I’m going to be honest, we missed it at the start of the day. I know Kyle got out to the lead, but we were obviously way too loose the first run of the race, got passed. Had to do a lot of work on our car throughout the day partly because of the direction we had to go as a response to the tire issues from yesterday.
So, yeah, that put us in the mindset of trying to play conservative, but also to your point, having to rely on the guys over the wall to make a lot of changes to the car, get the car dialed in for what our conditions and our air pressure platform was today.
Q. Earlier in season you guys probably should have won the Vegas race had it not been for a late caution. What does it mean to come back here and finish the job?
CLIFF DANIELS: Very, very special. Quite a relief. To be honest, though, there’s a lot of the intermediate Cup races this year that have come down to a late caution.
Our gears were spinning on top of the pit box and behind pit wall trying to make sure we had our air pressure adjustments right. We knew what our pit stop was going to be if a late caution came out. Fortunately it didn’t. I would like to think we were more prepared had it come out than what we have been earlier in the season.
Q. How many drivers spin like that, kiss the wall, are able to still keep control of the car and win a race?
CLIFF DANIELS: Probably not many. Probably not many. Huge credit to him. I got interviewed earlier, they said, 1 to 10, how would you rate that, Larson’s save?
I said, Man, everybody wanting to give it a 10. I’ll give it a 9.4.
They are like, 9.4?
Well, he hit the wall. If he wants a 10, don’t hit the wall.
It was a ridiculous save, yeah.
Q. People say you got to celebrate every win because you never know if it’s going to be your last. Is there any celebration on your part or are you not celebrating till Phoenix?
CLIFF DANIELS: I think as a team we all have been looking forward so much to a moment like this when our day does go well and things do go right that I would say when I go see the team after this, we’ll probably celebrate, have a drink, take a few minutes and reminisce on the day. When we wake up tomorrow morning, we’re going to be ready to go for Homestead.
Q. The caution shortly after the end of the first stage, the 19 stayed out, you took four. Can you take me through your thinking? Was there ever consideration to stay out, do anything other than four? Were you surprised to see the 19 stay out?
CLIFF DANIELS: If I’m saying this right, which I think I’m describing it right, a lot of guys up front at that point were on rights with a lot of laps on their lefts. I believe us and a handful of other guys were on our qualifying scuffs.
In our position, we were committed no matter what that we were pitting and going to take four no matter what. Guys that had committed to rights, of course, with a lot of laps on their lefts, they would be committed to four.
The 19, the 11, another car that you mentioned, I think those guys, because they had taken four stickers, we had four scuffs, other guys had two stickers, I think that put them in a little bit more of a versatile position to either stay or put on two right-side tires.
Obviously the 11 made it work. The 11 had the lead. Wasn’t fast enough to go get away, but was fast enough to defend on rights. Obviously that was a great call and it worked out for them.
Q. Does it mean as much because when the 19 stays out, nobody else did? When you see a lead-type car stay out, does that raise an eyebrow or you’re so focused on what you have to do?
CLIFF DANIELS: I think had our day been a little bit calmer, and I wasn’t so focused on trying to adjust on our car, I can’t remember if we hit the wall at that point, forgive me. We had a lot of things we were trying to work through with our day.
Certainly my expectation for the restart when I saw the 19 out front was that he was going to lead for a bit. Knowing how tough and how good Denny is in those situations, even being on rights, I expected those two cars were going to be really tough at the front of the field.
The 11 made it work. Again, he had fresh rights. I guess the 19, it shows us that with nine or 10, however many laps it was on their tires, that wasn’t the grip that he needed.
THE MODERATOR: Cliff, congratulations again. Good luck next week.
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