Cliff Daniels details No. 48 team’s ‘wild’ prep for NASCAR’s return

Cliff Daniels, the crew chief for the No. 48 team at Hendrick Motorsports, discusses how he, the team and Jimmie Johnson are prepping for NASCAR’s return.

The hum of activity is back at Hendrick Motorsports as the organization pecks away at preparing for NASCAR’s first races back since the COVID-19 outbreak. But it’s a different back-to-work feel for the organization, which is in its second week of operation with a limited number of personnel working under multi-point guidelines meant to curtail the disease’s spread.

Safety, always a priority in motorsports, remains the first order of business. Those precautions, however, have created some significant adjustments for Cliff Daniels and the rest of Hendrick’s Cup Series crew chiefs. Foremost among those modifications: Not laying eyes or hands on the No. 48 Chevrolet that they’ll bring to Darlington Raceway since, oh, mid-March.

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“We are proactively really not trying to let the two groups of our shop working force and our road-crew working force intermingle unless absolutely necessary, just to avoid risking exposure,” said Daniels, in his first full season as crew chief for seven-time series champ Jimmie Johnson. The interactions among crewmembers, instead, have come electronically — by video conferences, phone, text, and workplace chat software.

“From a crew chief perspective, it’s a little wild because not being able to physically see and touch the race car right now is definitely a big change for me and one that was tough at first, but we have a lot of great people that I trust, and we trust them to get the job done,” Daniels added. “So, thankful that we have good employees that are really willing to dig in and adapt. I don’t know that right now there’s many procedures that are business as usual, so to speak. There’s so much that we’ve had to change and adapt to that the whole thing, the whole landscape operationally is different, but we’ve put a lot of forethought and planning into it.”

Car, driver and crew chief will be reunited when the Cup Series resumes May 17 at Darlington (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), an event that touches off a busy four-race stretch in an 11-day period for the circuit. Two events at the historic South Carolina track will be quickly followed by two more at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with each race being held without fans and with strict safety protocols in place to combat the public-health crisis.

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Though the other Hendrick crew chiefs haven’t had personal contact recently with the cars they’ll carry responsibility for at the track, Daniels says the team’s Darlington entries were already well-prepped for races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway before their postponements in March.

“Right now we’re a little bit spoiled in terms of the level of prep that was in those cars,” Daniels says, “and once we get into some weeks where you’re racing three times in seven days, the cars on the backside of that schedule, we’ll see how good we really are at executing and getting all the details met, and I’m very confident in everyone at Hendrick Motorsports that we can do that. We’ve just got to see it through.”

That next challenge will come at Darlington with a drastically reduced race-day schedule that forgoes practice and qualifying. Only one of the next four Cup Series events — the May 24 Coca-Cola 600 — will hold qualifying as racing officials attempt to limit the time that crew members and other essential personnel are gathered.

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Without practice, Daniels said that unloading and then priming each car with limited adjustments before diving into an official event will mean a “quick evolution” as the track takes rubber and shapes driver feedback. He and Johnson plan to rely on notes from previous races, simulation data and other trends to establish a baseline before the No. 48 rolls out in the Darlington garage.

“With no practice, you just have to be very specific in what you’re looking for with the balance, grip level, attitude and performance of your car,” Daniels says. “There’s the good and the bad, and there’s an opportunity to either dial yourself in or dial yourself out, so I’m excited about the challenge. We’ve taken these last eight or nine weeks to work from home and really dig into a lot of the notes and situations, just to make us better. To have that confidence in the decisions that we’re going to make for how we unload.”

The communication lines have also been open during the sports-world lockdown between Daniels and Johnson, who plans to make this campaign his last full-time season in NASCAR’s top division. But their conversations have deviated from typical driver-crew chief race-day banter, first making sure that their families are staying safe amid the recent health emergency and offering input to the organization and NASCAR’s racing operations group about revised safety procedures that will be in place in the coming weeks.

With the larger public-health concerns kept firmly in mind, the passion for the racing retains its pull on Johnson. On Tuesday, he took ESPN’s social media challenge “Dear Sports, _____” to heart, detailing how he missed it. “It’s been an interesting time for me to reflect and to really understand how much I love competition, not only as a participant, but certainly as a spectator,” Johnson said, adding he was ready to enjoy the entertainment that sports provides, but also to make his own contribution to that cause.

That feel extends to Daniels’ drive to get back to business — albeit under different circumstances — in the racing world.

“From the competitive standpoint and just for what all this has been, we have so much empathy and concern for the general public and everyone in our country and over the world affected by the virus,” Daniels says, “but if we’re able to get back and bring some entertainment to those folks and just some hope for making one day a return to normalcy and to provide a little window into our competitive world for our fans and sponsors, that’s something we want to do.

“Personally, he and I are both incredibly competitive. It’s no secret how competitive he is and how much energy and passion he has for racing and just so many aspects of his life and career,” Daniels added, saying that Johnson has been intent on staying physically fit and mentally sharp during the unforeseen break. “When we get back going, I promise you he will have a grin from ear to ear when he drives into Turn 1 at Darlington when they drop the green flag at 180 mph. That’s a guarantee. You can take that to the bank.”