With just over 20 laps to go, Kyle Larson won the race off pit road – picking up three spots, all against the other Championship 4 contenders – and led the rest of the way to win the Series Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway – and the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Driver’s Championship.
“I cannot believe it,” said Larson after the race. “I didn’t even think I’d be racing a Cup car a year and a half ago. To win a championship is crazy. I’ve got to say first off thank you so much to Rick Hendrick, Hendrickcars.com, Jeff Gordon, NASCAR, every single one of my supporters in the stands, watching at home, my family. I’ve got so many of my friends and family here. My parents, my sister, my wife and kids.
“There were so many points in this race where I did not think we were going to win. Without my pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here. They are the true winners of this race. They are true champions. I’m just blessed to be a part of this group. Every single man or person, man and woman at Hendrick Motorsports, this win is for all of us, and every one of you. This is unbelievable. I’m speechless.”
Chase Elliott, driver of the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Camaro ZL1 1LE, was seeking his second consecutive championship, but finished fifth in the race to finish fourth in the final standings.
Larson, in his first season in the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Camaro ZL1 1LE, also won the regular-season championship.
“What a great way to finish the season. This is great day,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S. Vice President of Performance and Motorsports. “Congratulations to Kyle Larson, Cliff Daniels and the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Camaro ZL1 1LE team on winning the NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Kyle ran consistently up front all year long. The crew executed efficiently in the pits. Cliff and the engineers called the right race strategy throughout the season. Congratulations to Kyle on becoming Chevrolet’s 33rd Cup Series Driver’s Champion.
“We have been proud partners with Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports for over 38 years, and want to also congratulate Rick and the organization on earning their 14th NASCAR Cup Series title.”
Larson is the first driver to win 10 NCS races in a season since Team Chevy Jimmie Johnson in 2007. Larson also led the series this year with 18 stage wins, and 20 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes. He also became the first driver in 34 years to record two three-race winning streaks in a single season. Team Chevy legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. twice won three in a row on the way to his third of a record seven career Driver’s Championships.
Larson led 107 laps in the final race, the most of any driver.
The 33 NCS Driver’s Championships powered by Chevrolet are more than any other manufacturer. Before the Championship Weekend in Phoenix, Chevrolet had already clinched Manufacturer’s Championships in both the Cup and Xfinity series.
The 2021 title extends Hendrick Motorsports’ series-leading Driver’s Championships to 14 (all in the last 27 years, 1995-2021). Jimmie Johnson (seven titles), Jeff Gordon (four titles) and Terry Labonte (one title) also won championships for Hendrick.
Chevrolet closes the season with five consecutive wins for a total of 19, the most since it won 20 in 2014. Chevrolet now has 814 all-time wins in the series to lead all manufacturers.
Kyle Larson, Cliff Daniels, Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon
Kyle, you’ve been the class of the field for the entire year. Double-digit wins, most top 5s, most top 10s, just truly incredible. By the way, the most laps led in NASCAR Cup Series history. Just incredible. It’s a magical season. On behalf of everyone in NASCAR, our premier partners who are up here with us, our millions of fans around the world and these unbelievable fans here at Phoenix Raceway, I want to congratulate you, and it’s my honor to present the Bill France Cup to you as our 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion. Well done, Young Money.
THE MODERATOR: We now welcome the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion, Kyle Larson. Kyle, congratulations on an outstanding season, 10 wins, record-setting lap leading charge from the 5 team. Please give us a quick overview of your night and an incredible season.
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, it was a little bit of an up-and-down race compared to the four of us. There was moments where I was like, maybe I’ve got a good enough car to win outright and there was times where I was definitely the fourth best car.
Definitely a team win. I’m honestly glad that it took our whole — I mean, it always takes your whole team, but in one race, Cliff, the engineers making the adjustments on the car to keep us in the game, my pit crew is the main reason why we won that race, and I’m sure somewhere in there I made some good decisions, too.
Just happy that we had to earn this one and worked our butts off to get it done.
When you think about some of the things you’ve done this year, not just in the Cup Series but within all different disciplines, your 10 wins here in the Cup Series but also your success on the dirt tracks throughout the year, can you think of a year throughout your entire racing life where you’ve had a year where you’ve done so many different things and dominated throughout all kinds of different disciplines?
KYLE LARSON: Well, I only got to run four Cup races last year, but last year I was able to win 46 races. These last two seasons are ones that I’m very proud of, and I hope I can replicate it as years go on.
I wasn’t sure if I’d ever top what I was able to accomplish last year winning 46 times and about 50 percent of my races. This year I haven’t won as many races, but I’ve got more, a lot more big wins.
What I’m proud about, too, this year, there’s a lot I’m proud about, but this year I raced so many different types of cars. I was able to win a marquee event in each of the cars that I raced, the Chili Bowl and the BC39 in midget, Kings Royal, Knoxville Nationals in a sprint car, the Prairie Dirt Classic in a dirt late model, and a handful of big wins in the Cup Series. And to top it off with a Cup Series championship.
I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to top this year, but I hope I can someday.
Speaking on just this, the money stop and your crew, you mentioned there were times where you felt like you had the fourth best car. Did you ever think that you were always in it just because your pit crew was so good and the guys and the girls at the shop?
KYLE LARSON: Yep. Yeah, I always felt like, no matter how bad I felt like our car was at times, as long as I could stay with them, the other drivers in front of me, with our pit stall selection and my pit crew, I knew that we were going to be in it.
For us to come in fourth behind them and come out the leader was a little bit better than I thought we could do. But my pit crew, I’ve got all the belief in the world in them. They proved all season long that they were consistent and consistently fast.
We have such a great team, and they’re a massive part of it, and they’re the reason why we won tonight.
You mentioned just now finding it hard to imagine being able to top this year; what’s the next goal for you? What do you want to accomplish next?
KYLE LARSON: I don’t know. I just got done winning the Cup Series championship, which is a dream come true.
I don’t know. I mean, thankfully I’m young, I’m still in my 20s, and who knows. Who knows what’s out there, what other opportunities I might get, what other big races or something I could run.
I’m up for anything.
Just very fortunate to have all the opportunities I’ve ever been given, and it’s hard to think about what else I would like to accomplish, but I love winning races, and I love driving all sorts of vehicles.
I’ve watched you take your kids all over the world, and to have that moment when you took Owen for the victory lap, what was that like for you, and was there anything special that the two of you shared?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, that was really cool. I think it was Kevin Harvick maybe took Keelan, I can’t remember what race a few years ago, and I wasn’t winning a lot then, but okay — I wasn’t winning a lot then, but man, that was such a cool moment to share with your son.
I didn’t even have the idea to do it today. I think it was somebody from NASCAR asked if I’d like to take Owen for a ride to Victory Lane, and I was like, yeah, for sure. I was like, it’s really hot so he’s going to have to be careful in here. But he was so excited. I could see it in his face. He was holding the checkered flag. He’s gotten to do a lot of wing dances with me in a sprint car, but not too many Cup wins.
It was super cool to celebrate with him, my whole family, Owen, Audrey, Katelynn, my mom and dad were here, my sister. I don’t know when the last time she’s been to one of my races. So many of my friends were here. Paul Silva was here today. Hayden, our mechanic on the sprint car, Tommy Tarlton and his wife were here. There were so many people here to support me, that have supported me for years now, so it made this win feel even greater.
I know I might have gotten you in the intro when you said the biggest win was the Chili Bowl, but certainly this has to trump that victory?
KYLE LARSON: Definitely. Yeah, this year I’ve won so many big races, and it seems like each one I win, okay, that was my biggest win. Then you win another one, that was my biggest win. I don’t know if there’s another race that could ever top this win here today, winning the Cup Series race at Phoenix for a championship. It doesn’t get any bigger.
Kyle, in the car as you were going around with the big flag and stuff, you had tears in your eyes, you couldn’t really talk over the radio real well. What was that emotion going through you right at that time? What was the things that you were thinking of and knowing that this championship was a reality?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, you guys might not see it, but I tear up quite a bit. Whenever I win races, that mean a lot to me. Usually you’ll get myself composed before interviews and before I take my helmet off. Today you guys got to see it because I’m taking the checkered flag and I’ve got a camera straight in front of me, so you could see the emotion that I have for a lot of the wins I get.
But today was more tears than normal, I think, just because of the significance of the event, of the journey that it took to get here, and just — I think just everything, the atmosphere of the race, all the friends and family I had here today, my crew and the hard work that they put in all year.
I felt just a big relief that I was able to win for them and get to enjoy it with them. It all — well, a little bit of it was hitting me before the race started, and then it all kind of hit me there after the checkered.
I saw you had Anthony and Michelle Martin here today; what did it mean to have them here? Did you get a chance to talk to them after the race? What kind of role did they play in your comeback this season?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, it was so great to have them here. I think it worked out perfect with their schedule. I believe they were at the SEMA show or something earlier this week or last week and was able to come here.
Yeah, they were a big part of my comeback last year, I guess, and just talking with them and building a closer friendship. They’ve got a really tight relationship with Chevrolet and Jim Campbell. Anthony all of last year before I was ever even close to making a return to NASCAR was always in Jim Campbell’s ear about me.
It makes me feel really special that they were here today and got to enjoy all the festivities, taking pictures with our team next to the championship trophy. They were definitely a big part of — they are a big part of my life now, and I’m glad they were here to share it.
What was it like getting the championship ring from Jim France?
KYLE LARSON: That was cool. That was really cool. We were just at the barn before I came in here, and that place is rocking right now. Yeah, that was neat to get the championship ring presented to me.
I didn’t know that was something that happened right after the race. I thought that was something you got presented time during the week of the banquet. Really cool to go there and see a lot of the folks from NASCAR and get to share a cocktail here with them and get presented an awesome shiny ring.
What are you drinking?
KYLE LARSON: My go-to is Captain Morgan and Diet Coke. I’m pacing myself. This is my first one. You guys are probably bummed because I’m not like Ben Rhodes right now, but I was watching that Friday night and I was like, okay, if I win, I’m not going to be like him.
No, that was cool to see him enjoying it.
I really haven’t had time to like slam a bunch of drinks like he did. I don’t know really how he did that.
I told her (Katelynn) before I came here. I was like, You need to start drinking some water because you’re going to be in rough shape here soon. I’ve been around her for like 10 minutes, and I’ve seen her shotgun three or four different beers. She never drinks, by the way. She’s got this reputation like she’s the partier and this and that because she shotguns a beer, but she never parties. I hope she can pace herself tonight.
She said on TV she had had five or six?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, because she’d been drinking all day during the race. Like I said, we have a lot of friends here. So they were in the hospitality tent right here, and yeah, like she better sober up. But I did come here and somebody was handing her water, so hopefully she can drink that for a little bit.
But you were up on stage at the barn, and they were chanting her name louder than they were chanting your name. Then she comes up on stage and shotguns a beer. What’s going through your head?
KYLE LARSON: She can have it. She can have all the eyes on her. I don’t know, NASCAR fans, they love drinking. I can’t drink beer. You’ll never see me shotgun anything. Yeah, they definitely have that connection with her, and that’s cool. I drink the hard liquor, though, so I really have to watch my pace.
When we were talking to Katelynn, she said that the Chili Bowl was something that was a childhood dream that was achievable for you, but maybe a Cup champion was something that you never thought was achievable. I wanted to ask you, did you ever think that you would ever be sitting in this position?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, so I don’t really think that I ever like — don’t try and spin this in the wrong way, because like I don’t know if I ever dreamt of winning the Cup Series championship because I feel like it’s outside of, like, realistic things.
I feel like I dream about stuff that I know I can go do. I’m not sure I ever really thought that I could win a Cup Series championship. I’ve always thought about winning races, not championships. I didn’t know if I would ever win a Cup Series championship.
I can’t say that it was like a dream of mine.
Like I said, don’t take that the wrong way because that’s not what I’m trying to make it sound like. It’s just it’s so far out there that I never thought that I would do it.
Until I got with this team, for sure. Early on in the year I felt like we could do it, but then you kind of think about how the format is and all that, you’re like, well, something is going to happen where I don’t win this championship.
Maybe that’s what kept it out of my dreams a little bit, too, of all the circumstances that go into winning a championship in the Cup Series.
Like any other form of racing, it’s like a year-long thing. You can work your way towards winning a championship with this format, it’s just crazy. I think that’s kind of what’s kept it from me like dreaming about these moments and how I would see it being like.
You won in Nashville, the banquet is going to be in Nashville, and I know you’ve spent a lot of time there and talked fondly about it. How excited are you to celebrate your first championship in Nashville?
KYLE LARSON: I am extremely to go to Nashville. I love Nashville. We’re really close friends with the Bowyers, and through Clint and Laura we’ve been able to meet a lot of their friends, and Trace is who we’ve met recently in Sonoma, got to build a close friendship with. He knows a lot of big-name musicians and stuff, so I’m hoping he can pull some strings and we can get a massive party going in Nashville.
We FaceTimed them on the way to the barn and it was hard to hear, but I told him he’d better be scouting some good entertainers for us.
I’m really looking forward to Nashville. It’s one of the most fun cities you can possibly go to. Definitely not a better spot for the banquet.
Plenty of liquor, too.
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, plenty. I’m sure I’ll find some trouble. No, I look forward to it.
On that second to last caution you were forced to restart sixth after losing a spot on pit road there and Truex and Blaney staying out. How much differently did your car handle the dirty air at that time as opposed to the first short stint of the race when you were coming back through traffic?
KYLE LARSON: Well, I don’t think the dirty air affected it necessarily too much. Towards the end of that longer run, that led into that caution, I started — so the two runs before that I felt like we finally hit on our balance some and I could apply the throttle like I needed to on exit. Built too tight, so then I think we probably started freeing back up again.
Then I don’t know if the track went through a shift or if our car just was looser, but then I started getting loose, loose on exit, and that whole run when I restarted sixth and got back to fourth there, I was just too free off to apply the throttle like I needed to.
But you go out in clean air after we had the pit stop I still had a sort of similar balance to that, but maybe Martin’s balance wasn’t quite as good in that short little run.
Yeah, clean air or just track position really is important.
What is your relationship with your pit crew like? Obviously you gave them a lot of credit for getting you first out on that last restart and obviously they did a great job for you there, but what is your relationship with them like?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, so our team I feel like is really tight. I think Cliff does a good job of — before when I was at Ganassi, I was never a part of like the pre-team kind of meetings and stuff with the pit crew and all that, and I love being a part of that and seeing and kind of going over the race strategy with everybody, and seeing them at the shop — I go to the shop more often a little bit and get to see their prep that goes into stuff.
Yeah, it’s just he does a great job leading this team and keeping us all close. It’s easy a lot of times for the driver I feel like to be distant from everybody, just the way that schedules are and all that, but I feel like I’m closer to my team than I’ve ever been with any other team.
Just really proud of all of them. Really proud about how consistent they were throughout the whole season, and for them to come in clutch like that on the final pit stop of the year makes me feel good. So I owe them something very big for sure.
18 months ago did you see yourself ever being able to experience this moment?
KYLE LARSON: No, I didn’t — 18 months ago I didn’t think that I was ever going to be in a Cup car again. Strapping in for the Daytona 500 didn’t even seem real, let alone winning the championship.
No, it’s definitely been a journey, a roller coaster. But I’m very thankful for my second chance and every opportunity I’ve been given in these last 18 months.
Life is a crazy thing, and you’ve just got to stay positive through it all, and everything will hopefully work out for you.
Talking about those 18 months, they were what they were, but going all the way back to when you got your start in NASCAR specifically and in stock cars, back to the K&N days and to Ganassi and it kind of comes full circle now, you winning your title on his last day as a car owner, how has your relationship with stock cars specifically and NASCAR specifically evolved and changed over the last few years?
KYLE LARSON: Well, yeah, it was so nice to see Chip today. He is the sole reason why I’m here today. I mean, there’s so many — there’s been a lot of people. Rick has obviously been a big part of this, too.
I met with every team owner back in 2011, and Chip Ganassi was the only guy, the only team owner to even entertain me racing this car. I met with him for probably 20 minutes, and he signed me up right then after.
I owe the world to him. It was nice to see him today and see how happy and at peace I felt like he was with it, with his final event as a team owner.
Very thankful for all the years that I spent at Chip Ganassi Racing. I still work out there with Josh Wise, so it’s nice to see all the familiar faces and a lot of the people from the 42 car, they came by to congratulate me tonight, so it made me feel really good.
It makes me feel really good inside. A little bit bittersweet honestly that I was able to win in Chip’s last event as a car owner.
A couple minutes ago Tony Stewart tweeted, Congratulations to the best race car driver I’ve ever seen. Instant reaction and what does it mean to you to hear that comment coming from him?
KYLE LARSON: Today has been really cool. To now hear you say that, and I did an interview with NBC before the race started, Mario Andretti, to hear him talk about his thoughts on me. And now Tony Stewart, probably the one driver if I had to pick, if I really had a true racing hero, I would say it’s Tony Stewart, who I’ve always believed to be the best race car driver ever.
That means a lot to me. Yeah, it’s just — I try to model my racing and my schedule off what I feel like Tony Stewart would do, so that makes me feel really good.
First off, Cliff was in here and he mentioned a few times he felt like the weak link on this team sometimes, and that seems odd. Did you know that at any point during the year, that he was putting so much pressure on himself? He also mentioned that he hasn’t slept basically all year.
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, so I didn’t realize that like he doesn’t sleep the night before a race. I was just like joking with him earlier, like, Man, how did you sleep last night? And he’s like, I didn’t. I was like, Man, really? I slept like a baby last night.
Yeah, that’s odd to hear him say that he felt like the weak link, which I don’t feel like we have any weak links on our team at all, which I think we proved that tonight because it took a whole team effort to win that race.
We joke with Cliff a lot that when we don’t win, he’s sad and he’s mopey and all this and that. It doesn’t surprise me, though, I guess that he thought he was a weak link just because he holds everybody to a high standard, but apparently himself, too.
I think you need that, though. You need to have that drive in each and every one of you to want to be better each and every day.
He’s an amazing crew chief, amazing team leader, and I am extremely fortunate to be with this race team.
I think Jimmie Johnson is a big credit to it, as well. I think his leadership skills, as well, has molded Cliff into the person he is and the crew chief he is today as well as all the team members on this 5 car.
I’m sure you’ll look at the numbers eventually, but 10 wins, all the laps led, to come back, have the year that you had, you said it, you didn’t realistically think of this as — you didn’t think of this as something that was realistic. Did this feel impossible, to not only come back but to have the year that you had?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know what to think about it really. Yeah, it’s just wild. Like I didn’t know that we would have a season like this. I thought — with Chase winning last year, I knew we would be strong, but I didn’t think that we would ever win double-digit races in the Cup Series. This isn’t anything that I thought I would ever do in the Cup Series, double-digit wins and winning the championship, winning half the playoff races.
I thought when Tony Stewart won half of the playoff races in the year that he won the championship, I was like, that’ll never be done again.
For me to match him on that, the laps led, the wins, the top 5s and stuff, and all the wins outside of Cup racing, I never thought racing for Hendrick Motorsports that I would get to race a single dirt race in a year, let alone as many as I have this year. It’s definitely an unbelievable season on so many different levels.
You said you met with every team back in 2011. What do you remember about meeting with Hendrick Motorsports back then?
KYLE LARSON: I joke with Jeff about this. He’ll probably be upset that I said this. But it might have been one of the first times I met Jeff Gordon. Yeah, I was like star struck a little bit to be at Hendrick Motorsports and getting to be there with Jeff. I remember him showing me around the shop.
I remember turning the corner, we were going to his office and I turned the corner and his super model wife was standing there, and she’s like seven-foot tall and beautiful, and I was like, oh, my God, this is crazy. Then we sat down in his office, and Jeff Gordon is such an awesome race car driver and one I’ve looked up to since I was a little toddler.
I remember being so disappointed when I left there because everybody knows I love dirt racing, and he’s like, You really need to get out of dirt cars. They’re going to teach you bad habits, and this and that, and I was like, Man, that was a terrible time there at Hendrick, after I left.
I think I went from Hendrick to Ganassi probably right after that, and I was not feeling like too pumped up about the day. Really think I was there for three days and met with every team and just being disappointed every time I left the race shop because it’s like they’re just going through the motions, nice to meet you, you’ve got a cool resume, yeah, we need a few hundred thousand dollars for you to race our car next year. Like I don’t have anybody to bring money to. Then when I met with Chip, I was feeling on top of the world.
Yes, I joke with Jeff about my trip to Hendrick that day, and he tells me about kind of the behind-the-scenes conversations he had with Rick after that. They had I think Chase, kind of already worked on signing him up at that point when I met with them. It all worked out in the end. I got to get experience and they didn’t have to pay for any of it before I got to them. So it worked out.
When you look back at this moment per se when you’re on the rocker 30 or 40 years from now in the future, what is one thing you’ll remember the most about this night?
KYLE LARSON: This night? That pit stop. Yeah, I think definitely — I think the pit stop will come first to my mind. But the hard work that it took throughout that whole race — in the beginning, like I said, our car was so far from being capable of winning the race, and they did a great job of getting our balance within the range to where I felt like maybe we could go race for the win.
Then my pit crew, yeah.
Yeah, probably just the team effort that it took to win.
Cliff came in here and he spoke about the opportunity that he took to join you with a lot of the sprint car, midget and late model races this season. Can you tell me a little bit about how that benefitted you guys’ relationship, the lack of practice and qualifying this year, and just how you guys were able to learn each other’s languages?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, I don’t know. I feel like I’m really easy to work with. Mostly because I don’t know anything about a race car. But I think it was just good to get him there.
He came on his own behalf. It was just nice for me to see that he cared about all the racing that I do and wanted to learn about it, wanted to talk to the crew chiefs, pick their brain about how I communicate and stuff.
I think that really kind of kick-started the relationship a little bit.
Like I said, I’m really easy to work with. I feel like he’s really easy to work with. I feel like we’re a great — we have great chemistry because he is so good at communicating and so good at painting a picture, and I like to process all that information to understand the flow of the race and stuff.
Yes, it was nice that he came to a lot of my dirt races, and he’ll pick up the phone and talk to Kevin Rumley about the late model, he’ll talk to Paul Silva about the sprint car and stuff. It’s neat when you have a crew chief that has your back and supports all the stuff that you race.
Is an Indy 500 on the horizon for you?
KYLE LARSON: I don’t know, like I said earlier, I would love to entertain anything, no matter what type of vehicle it may be. I like being known as a versatile race car driver. Yeah, I mean, I’m open to anything.
It’s just logistically it’s just a tough thing to do. It takes a lot of dedication to go race that event and not just say that you raced in it, say you want — I would want to go there and know that I’ve got a shot to win, know that I’ve put in the effort and the work to win, and it’s just logistically it’s tough. But I would for sure entertain it if Rick would let me.
KYLE LARSON: I don’t know, I haven’t talked to him about it. All this stuff, I feel like the Indy 500 question always comes up, and it usually comes up before the Indy 500, but I feel like this year has been weird because it’s been like all year everybody talks to me about it.
I’ve told everybody around me, like I don’t even want to talk about it until the season is over. We’ll see. Like I said, it just takes a lot of — it logistically takes a lot of work. I want to be with a good team, too.
When Mr. H was in here we were discussing the history of the No. 5 and the talented drivers that have been behind the wheel, and he mentioned Mark Martin, who he thought really had a legitimate shot to win a championship in the No. 5, and I mentioned to him that it was 25 years ago when Terry Labonte last brought the No. 5 a championship. I know you haven’t had time to think about that, but now you’re in an elite class with somebody like Terry Labonte, a Hall of Famer, bringing the 5 back to a championship. What are your thoughts about something like that?
KYLE LARSON: I’m really happy to be able to add on to the legacy of the number and the paint scheme and what all it means for Hendrick Motorsports and Rick and Linda Hendrick especially.
Yeah, it’s the originating car number for their team.
There’s just so many awesome things that now I get to be attached to with it, with that number. Just fortunate that he trusted me to carry on the legacy of the No. 5 and especially the paint scheme, and we were able add on to a lot of big wins and a lot of marquee special moments.
Jeff Gordon was saying tonight that he didn’t think at one point anybody could do the things that you’ve done this year and win all the different series because you’re winning at the elite levels in all series, and he said, Kyle is proving me wrong. You talked before the playoffs, you said, Every generation needs somebody to set high goals, and I’m fortunate to race in a lot of different cars. How do you explain the year that you’ve had with all the big wins and everything and what it’s meant to go through that — I think arguably you probably have to go back 40, 50 years to even look at anybody who’s done anything that you’ve done in the U.S.?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, it’s just — I don’t know, I think another 20, 30 years from now I think I’ll be able to really sit down and appreciate it. I mean, I appreciate it for sure. I understand the season that we’ve had. But I don’t think you really can appreciate it until you hear of other generations talking — that are younger than me talking about a season like I’ve had.
I think I’m just a very lucky guy who gets to race in the best race cars of all the series that I get to run in. I’m in the best seat in the Cup Series. I’m in the best seat in a sprint car. I’m in the best seat in a late model. I’m in the best seat in a midget, whether it be with Chad Boat or my old car.
I think it takes a lot of hard work to get those opportunities and a lot of hard work to take advantage of it. But without good people around you and being able to be in good race cars, I would never get to have a season like I’ve had these last two years.
How did you convince the Hendrick folks to allow you to do the racing — you talked about you weren’t sure, and obviously when you came in I’m guessing you probably didn’t have a whole lot of leverage. And I know Jeff said he was for it, but he said Rick needed convincing. Was there anything that you were able to do, or how did you present your case to do this when there were probably a lot of questions?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, you’re right. I knew I had no leverage at all when I went to meet with him or Rick and Jeff. I remember that initial meeting, it was great. Rick talked about how much he loved my driving style and this and that, and he’d love to get me in his race car.
Then he got to the end of the meeting, and he’s like, What’s something that you want? I was like, I’m nervous. I know how Rick Hendrick feels about dirt racing, and I hope I’m not shooting myself in the foot right here before I ask this question, but I was like, I’d like to race some dirt races.
He didn’t shut it down at all. Jeff had mentioned to me a few times before that the culture and how they kind of handle their drivers’ schedule was changing, but I didn’t really believe it. He was telling me that stuff. But I threw it out there, and I’ve gotten to race way more than I thought I would. When I was with Ganassi in the beginning, it was nothing. I couldn’t really race anything. Then it kind of morphed into 25 races in a year, and then it morphed into 25 races in a Cup season.
I thought I would be something similar to that. But by the end of this year I’ll race probably 100 total races, the most I’ve raced in a long time, especially a full-time Cup Series driver.
Also I know that there’s not as much racing at this point of the season just because everything is closing down, but I think Jeff said there was a little bit of concern about what it would be like if you weren’t racing as much during even the playoffs. I guess he said you went out and did some go-kart racing this week. Was there anything special about the go-kart racing you did this week or was it just —
KYLE LARSON: I didn’t do any go-kart racing this week. I did that go-kart race before the Roval. But yeah, I didn’t — they didn’t really have any restrictions on me all year long. When it got close to the playoffs, Jeff and — Jeff was like hinting, you shouldn’t — you should be really focused on the playoffs and this and that. Even Rick said it a few times. I kind of just played dumb, like yeah, yeah, whatever. Then I’d go off and race dirt races.
My kind of thought on it all was, why change what I was doing with my schedule when I feel like all that racing that I’ve done leading up to the playoffs helped me win a bunch of Cup races.
See, I felt like it was important for me to race during the playoffs, and it paid off. I hope that means good things for my schedule next year.
Rick Hendrick was in here earlier, and he said that he hopes that you retire with Hendrick Motorsports; how do you feel about that?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, I mean, I hope I’m with his organization as long as I want to race Cup cars. I don’t know how long that is. If we’re winning races and championships in 20 more years, I’ll still be doing it.
Yeah, it’s a great organization, one that I think every driver in the garage area would love to race for. Extremely fortunate and grateful and thankful and so many different other words that can describe how I feel about being there.
Yeah, Rick Hendrick is one of the greatest human beings I’ve gotten the pleasure to meet and get to know a little bit more this year. He’s got a great group of people running that place, and all of us drivers there are very lucky to be there.
I hope the four of us drivers can be a part of Hendrick Motorsports for a very long time because I feel like we all get along really well.
THE MODERATOR: Kyle, thank you so much for the time and enjoy the off-season.
THE MODERATOR: We will continue with our post-race press conference with two members of our championship team, the 2021 champion crew chief, and that’s Cliff Daniels, and the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion owner, Rick Hendrick. Congratulations, gentlemen. Maybe give us some opening remarks on the night and the season, championship season.
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, I guess I would say first, this year, throughout the entire season, our team pushed so hard. Sounds easy to say. Of course all teams push hard.
But it all came down to the final pit stop. And I have always pushed our guys so hard back at the shop, the guys working on the car, the guys pitting the car, and to see them shine in a moment where they could shine I think is just incredible. And then of course Kyle on the restart and really all day long Kyle staying in the game was just incredible.
It takes so many people back at the shop at Hendrick Motorsports to get Kyle back after he was out last season, there’s so many people behind all of this, I couldn’t be more thankful, and what it took to get today done was a really big deal for our company and for our team.
So big thank you to Mr. H, everyone in the Hendrick family, Hendrick Automotive Group that’s been sponsoring us most of the year. And I know what a big deal it was so them, Chevrolet, all the guys behind us, and everybody back in the shop, really cool day.
THE MODERATOR: Mr. H, you want to give us your perspective, please?
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, it didn’t look too good there with about 35 laps to go. Yeah, made a great stop, and those four cars were pretty equal all day. At certain times our cars were better and certain times the Toyotas were better. We were just fortunate to have that caution, and the guys just knocked out a really good stop and we were able to hold them off.
Real proud of Cliff and Kyle. I remember when Cliff didn’t know who the driver was going to be this year. I said, I think you’ll be happy.
Were you happy?
CLIFF DANIELS: Oh, of course.
Cliff, the speed of the pit stop was important, but how important was having the first pit stall?
CLIFF DANIELS: Very important, and that came from qualifying, which — it’s funny because earlier Kyle said he didn’t know that qualifying mattered all that much. Well, it absolutely did, to get that pit stall. What a big deal that was.
I think he was saying that more in the context of there’s going to be an ebb and flow to the race, guys are going to be up front, you’re going to be not up front. I know that that’s how he meant that comment when he made it, but it was pretty funny to me to hear him say that.
But knowing that we had pit stall 1, I think we had pit stall 1 for either the last four or five races of the year. So that was a really comfortable spot for our guys to be in. They have pitted from the lead a lot. They have pitted from at the cusp of getting the lead a lot, so they know how to be tough, so that was a big deal.
Kyle wasn’t alone. The narrative all week was from all the Championship 4 teams, aside from yours, we’re not going to put any emphasis on qualifying because the top 4 guys get top 4 pit selections. Did you guys put emphasis on it? Obviously that was a big key was winning the pole and being able to get that stall?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, all of our homework was done on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and I guess a little bit Thursday on qualifying. But none while we were at the track, which sounds crazy to say. We knew on Tuesday that we were going to do top 3 and 4 coming to the green, which we did. We were going to run top 1 and 2 on the money lap, which was lap 1, and then just pray, and 3 and 4, which is exactly what he did, and we got a pole by a tenth and a half.
So the plan that we established on Tuesday for how to go qualify is exactly what Larson executed, which is just incredible.
Honestly, that had nothing to do with the car, that was all him.
Do you think he benefitted at all from having a plan, where other teams, I think some teams didn’t make mock runs in qualifying?
CLIFF DANIELS: Well, we didn’t make a mock run, either, and that was kind of by design. Big thank you to Greg Ives and the 48 team because there were some things we were thinking about doing in a mock run that was a little different than what we had done all of the Hendrick cars in years past, and the 48 tried that out in practice with Alex, and it went okay. They actually looked pretty good on their mock run.
If it weren’t for that data point to help tell me what to do with the car, just to get it close, I knew Larson was going to nail it of course either way, but that helped us get where we needed to be.
So the 48 doing the Q run in practice that we did not, coupled with our prep Monday and Tuesday, I think is what made the difference.
Do you think you had the fastest of the four cars?
CLIFF DANIELS: Absolutely not, no, we were terrible halfway through the race. We were — terrible is a strong word, but compared to our standards this year that I never expected to set the bar that high to ourselves, where we could go dominate and lead laps, we were not where we needed to be.
I am familiar with what he needs to be comfortable in a car, and unfortunately we did not give him that for most of the race today. We had to make a lot of adjustments. There was a wrench in the window every single pit stop. We knocked in rubbers. We did all sorts of — every spectrum of air pressure that you could try, even one by accident that helped us.
Even the final pit stop the guys had an amazing stop, was all four tires had different air pressure, it was a track bar change and tape, and they still won the race off pit road, so that was pretty cool.
Denny said (indiscernible)?
CLIFF DANIELS: I believe it. Yeah, we were tied for third.
Rick, talking with Jeff Gordon in Victory Lane and he was talking about the beginning of the year maybe a little bit of reservations of how much racing to allow Kyle to do beyond this series, and Jeff said he was for it, but he said you kind of were more the logical mind and had some issues or concerns. How were you kind of convinced to allow him to do these things to where he’s not only won here but won a lot of major events throughout the country on dirt?
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, you know, when you talk to a driver and you know in his heart that it’s really important to him, and I told him, I said, Look, I don’t want you to get hurt. He said, It makes me better. It keeps me sharp. He said, I think it helps me in the Cup car. So I just agreed to let him do it.
You know, of course you have reservations, but he convinced me he wasn’t going to get hurt. I’m going to hold him to that.
Were you concerned with him — obviously I know you wanted him to tone it back during the playoffs, but how much of a concern was it he wasn’t going to be able to do as much racing at this point because that was kind of his DNA?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, you know, he agreed. We talked about it. He said, When we get in the playoffs, I’m going to back off, and he did. I think his focus was he wants to win races. He wants to — the Cup deal is his main job, and he knows that.
He wants to win every race.
He convinced me, and I think Cliff and I talked about it. And we talked to him about it, and we said, Now, we don’t want you getting in late in the middle of the night to get in a Cup car. If you want to run during the week, you can do that.
It all worked out.
I’m curious, everybody talks about what a special talent Kyle is, a special athlete. You obviously also had the opportunity to work with Jimmie, but when you work with somebody like that, how has Kyle challenged you, maybe not directly, but just to work with a talent like that, to know what is there, how does he challenge you, and how do you have to challenge that type of talent, even for as motivated as he may be, to remain up high as opposed to being comfortable with what he does?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, really good question. The first thing that I would say, he grew up dirt racing out west. I grew up pavement racing on the East Coast. You literally could not get farther apart on the spectrum of racing.
The connection that we had was our passion for racing, so yes, I grew up pavement racing on the East Coast, very specific types of racing, very specific way that you progress through the different series. So that was what I was accustomed to.
Then getting to know him, there was this entire different world of dirt racing that I had really only had small exposure to, some friends in college, maybe some friends in high school a little bit that I kind of learned there, but I took it upon myself to consider myself the weak link between the two of us and that I needed to learn the discipline of dirt racing and get to know Kevin Rumley that was his late model crew chief, get to know Paul Silva, his sprint car crew chief, which I’m very thankful I got to know both of those guys.
I went to late model races, I went to midget races, I went to sprint car races just to learn that discipline to understand the language that they speak and to understand when he says that racing three or four nights a week makes him better, what does that mean? What does that look like?
I know Mr. H talked about earlier that having him not race during the playoffs was a little bit of a safety factor for us, but honestly I was kind of worried for the opposite, because he raced all season long during the week, and when we won our — we were Turn 3 at Pocono away from winning five weekends in row, it would have been the fourth points race but five weekends in a row. He was racing two or three nights a week then, and I was getting so much information from him about himself, like he was up front every night, and if he got beat by somebody on a restart, he would tell me what he did wrong.
And it would help me learn what he needed to look for out of himself and out of the car, whether dirt or pavement or any series moving forward. So that information to me was really invaluable because I don’t know how else I would have gotten it.
Even if we had Cup practice and Cup qualifying, I would not have seen Kyle Larson on the front row of some race getting beat by anybody that he could then tell me, Hey, man, when this guy beat me, this is what I did wrong, and I could see this playing out in a Cup race or sprint race or late model race or whatever.
That perspective for me taught me a lot so that when we talked during the week of our approach for a Cup race, not only the Cup race in its entirety, but like, Hey, man, how do you win the last restart? How do you set up a guy to pass for the win, whether it’s at the end of a playoff race or not, championship race or not, how do you position yourself? How do I make adjustments to the car? How does he see what he needs to see? That meant so much to me throughout the year.
I know it did to him. I don’t know that he recognized it at first, that I was learning that much from him; but later in the year, especially in the playoffs, he knew the page that I was on, kind of learning from him and, again, trying to understand that world and understand him more, that I could put underneath of him what he needed to go get it done.
We were the third or the fourth place car for most of the day today. For the final restart, we made a handful of adjustments, had an amazing pit stop, and our car held off everyone in the field for the final run of the race. Well, I made a lot of adjustments to do that because I knew what he needed, if that makes sense.
All of that — I know I’m rambling a bit, but all of that led us to that final pit stop, those final adjustments to get it done today.
Cliff, you just said that you got the car — made a lot of adjustments. How much is Kyle Larson responsible for those last 30, 40 laps?
CLIFF DANIELS: He’s responsible for sitting on the pole, which is stall 1. Stall 1 is responsible for part of the equation that led to the last pit stop. 90 percent of the equation was the guys having an amazing stop. 10 percent of the equation was stall 1. And then the last 25 laps I would attribute a lot to him because he knew what he needed to do up front.
I told him when we were standing on the stage in Victory Lane, I told him, Man, your patience, when you got out front — and no, the car wasn’t perfect, but he knew how to not miss a corner and miss his line and overrun himself to then have a good exit, maintain his pace ahead of Martin. That was pretty crucial.
Yes, we had some adjustments in the car. Absolutely we had an amazing stop. But I think if it weren’t for his maturity as a driver, not only is he one of the greatest talents in the world currently, but I think he’s now set himself at a level where people can consider him an incredibly smart racer. I think that was the difference at the end.
For Rick, kind of the perception of Kyle was that he’s always more into sprint cars, and while this was a challenge, this wasn’t his huge love. I’m curious if that perception, A, ever made you wonder whether you should hire him, and B, was there anything that you saw this year that made you think that that perception is not accurate?
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, absolutely. I had heard the stories that he couldn’t close, that he was fast and he would run near the wall and he’d wreck.
When we got him in the car, it was pretty obvious that he was pretty quick, that he could run the whole race and he was fast and he took care of the car.
No, I knew his talent from watching him when he was driving for Chip and could see some of the things he could do with the car. So he’s impressed me.
I think as Cliff just said, I think his ability to know how to race has impressed me a lot this year because he’s fast, but he knows how to race, and he knows when to race and when he needs to just take care of it.
Cliff, you may not be aware, but the 11 and 19 cars actually sent out empty haulers and kept the cars back on the 18 and 20 to massage the cars. Did you do anything like that? I know you had extra time to work on the cars, but did you hold your cars back at all?
CLIFF DANIELS: No, we didn’t. The one thing that I would be remiss if I didn’t say, Jesse Saunders, our car chief, has worked his entire career to be able to be on this stage today, and I’m really sad that we failed tech twice and Jesse got basically pulled out of the racetrack.
Monday when we got back from Martinsville, Jesse was at the shop at 5:30 a.m. He worked until 2:00 a.m. that night. He was back at 6:00 a.m. the next day. He worked until midnight on Tuesday, which is when we loaded our cars.
We had talked about sending the primary haulers out empty with our cars because there was a NASCAR parade in town in Phoenix that of course we didn’t want the haulers to miss, but we had a deadline that we had to hit, which 10:00, midnight, somewhere in there on Tuesday night, that if it weren’t for Jesse personally and the work that he did, I know we would not have made it, and I know we would not have had the car prepared as well as it was.
I only made it to midnight on Monday, and I flopped out and then I came in and it was probably 7:00 a.m. on Tuesday, I guess it was. And he was 2:00 and 6:00, if that makes sense. That was the difference.
I thought I had heard that the JGR cars had done that. Obviously it was a tight timeline trying to get everybody out here to Phoenix safely, making it in time for the NASCAR parade in town in Phoenix and still be able to be on track on Friday. So big thanks to the guys back at the shop, and I’m telling you, Jesse Saunders is a BA. He came in for the celebration.
Rick, Chip Ganassi waves goodbye to NASCAR after 20 years. Your thoughts on competing against him and knowing him throughout that entire time?
RICK HENDRICK: Chip is a good friend and a great competitor. What he’s done in open wheel and the championships he’s won, we built motors for him for I don’t know how many years. He’s been a good friend. I hate to see him go. I hate to see him retire from NASCAR. But he’s got his plate full. I think he’s in IMSA now, off road and INDYCAR.
I guess he thought it was time. But he surprised a lot of us.
Rick, this is the first time where somebody has won the NASCAR Cup Series championship in their first season with you. Just looking at Kyle Larson’s performance during the championship run, how does it stack up to other championship runs you’ve been a part of?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, I think back to Jimmie Johnson, and I think Kyle broke Jeff Gordon’s record laps led, so I’ve been very fortunate to have some champions that have won a lot of races and led a lot of laps.
I think the competition is pretty fierce. I’m not saying it was any harder today than it was back when Jeff or Jimmie won, but I think — I’m just surprised that Kyle and Cliff gelled as quickly as they did.
Our crew chiefs have worked so hard together. We say we’re one team with four cars. Chad Knaus is back in the shop. When you put the talent of our crew chiefs and you look at William Byron’s maturity and how he’s raced this year, Alex won four, Chase won two, I think we were, what, 17, 18 races, the organization really is as strong across the board that I think we’ve ever had in balance, all four cars.
Cliff, you talked about processing all of that information that Kyle gives you and how you’re able to translate that into the car. What have you learned about yourself in taking that information and actually being able to make those adjustments as efficiently as you guys have been able to?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, I think I’ve learned to still trust some of my experience in racing. Obviously through the last three or four years where the teams that I’ve been on and the team with Jimmie, we didn’t get all the things right from the team side of things. We didn’t get the results that we needed. Maybe didn’t always make the best adjustment.
I have been in racing since I was four or five years old, and my dad was racing late models at Langley Speedway. There’s so much that I’ve learned along the way, and I have learned from the incredible leadership at Hendrick Motorsports from Jeff Andrews, Chad Knaus, guys like Alan Gustafson. He’s been a big role model of mine.
And then connecting with Larson this year, to piece together what I know of racing from my background, what he knows of racing from his background, and then to still go with the gut racer instinct, we did a lot today.
For example, today we ran six laps, caution came out, and we were the only car that pitted. Marty Snyder with NBC came down, he’s like, Man, is anything wrong? Why did you pit? I’m like, Well, the run is about to be 68 laps still. If it goes green, we’re going to win the stage. We have the best tires. I know we are. Everybody thought I was crazy at the time. Heck, I almost thought I was crazy at the time. But I knew, I knew, I knew from looking at the lap times, from lap 1 to lap 5, the field had already fallen off one to two tenths already on lap 5 or 6.
So yes, we were alone as being the car that pitted, but that is an example where I knew, I knew, because we had studied it all week long at a situation like that, to go ahead and take the tires, and then if the caution comes out later, you stay out and you get your track position back, which we did. Or if the caution doesn’t come out, you restart 25th, which we did. And I was pretty confident we were going to drive back up, just because of the tire life difference, drive back to the front.
I’m answering your question with an example. There’s an example.
These were the last pit stops with five lug nuts. Obviously pit stops are still going to be important next year with the Next-Gen car, but what is the significance that you won this championship in large part due to efforts that will be used in other ways in 2022?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, it’s a big deal. I think Mr. H looked at where our pit crews were the last couple years and he kind of tasked all of us with improving over-the-wall performance, of course we needed to improve car performance, needed to improve in every area. And the crew chiefs, Chad Knaus, a lot of guys, we all spent time really trying to refine our pit crews and keep pushing them the way we practice.
Big credit to the coaches, the staff back at the shop. I want to say there’s six or eight people that are really in charge of our pit crew department. They have done a great job all year long of pushing our guys every week. And I know that sounds basic and simple, but it is that simplicity of the reps, the routine, the pushing, the workout days, the practice days that made the difference for us at the end of the day today, which we all know if the 5 car didn’t win the race off pit road, we probably don’t win the race, we probably don’t win the championship.
That was the difference, but it wasn’t by accident. There was a lot of hard work, a lot of good people, a lot of good prep behind that that started a year, two years ago in building the process to where we have it today.
Cliff, last race with this generation car. You’ve talked about how special this car and this era of motorsports is to you. Certainly winning the championship and winning 10 races today is the most special part of today, but is there any added significance to you to kind of send this car and send this era of motorsports off with a win?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a big deal. I guess if I back up in the week, it kind of hit home for me when on Monday and Tuesday, a lot of the guys that normally you see in their specific department for chassis construction, body construction, finish fab, whatever it may be, I see them maybe weekly, bi-weekly, for how they operate and how they work. We had a lot of those folks that came up to the race shop floor to be there with the cars on the setup plate, to be with the teams.
We had a lot of those guys, a lot of the craftsmen, the fabricators, the guys that really put their heart and soul and their craft into building these cars. We had a lot of them around Monday and Tuesday until we loaded.
That was a really bittersweet moment because those guys had such a hand not only in building our cars this year, but I know we as a company were really proud that we have a lot of guys that have been at our company for over 15 or 20 years. There are so many of those guys, those folks that have been around for so long. They’ve contributed to all the success of Hendrick Motorsports.
To have them around to see the look on their face that they were sending their best out the door but also knowing that life is going to be different next year, I think we’re all excited in the anticipation for what next year is, but it’s definitely different.
That moment kind of hit home for me, and I think it did for a lot of folks, to see those guys on the shop floor kind of sending their goodbyes, sending their best wishes to their final true piece of art that is a NASCAR race car Gen-6, the way we’ve known it.
Rick, you hired Kyle presumably because you believed in him, you thought he could do this, you thought he could get here. Did you think that he would get here and be here and be a champion this quickly?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, no. If you asked me did I think he could win 10 races and win the championship, I mean, I thought he’d be fast, I thought the team would be good, but I had no idea when the season started that we could win 18 races and he could win 10.
No, you hope that you can be competitive. You hope you can run well. I think as Cliff said, we worked really hard when the 1LE Camaro came out. We were behind with the original car. But the 1LE put us in the ballgame. So we started running well and winning with that car.
I hate to see it go. I think Chase had the last — we started building chassis in ’87, and Chase’s car was the last chassis we built today.
Rick, I think this is your 14th championship; I’m sure they’re all special, they all have special moments, including this one with Kyle and his story. But I just wondered what it felt like to have a championship with the 5 car and the colors that it represents for you and for the whole organization.
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, I think my wife and I, when we watch that car race, it just does something to us, paying tribute to our son, the number, the colors. Then Hendrick Cars got on it, and they got so excited about it, and we were getting to do another sponsorship, they wanted the car.
It does, the whole company, it just means so much to them and our organization and the automobile side. They were sending texts and everybody — I love that color. I love that car. So it’s very, very special to be able to win that and celebrate his colors, his number and his life.
Mr. H, you’ve had a lot of successful partnerships with your race teams, and this one put together one of the best seasons in NASCAR history. What do you see in this team, and how far do you think they can go?
RICK HENDRICK: I mean, I look at the age of our guys, and I’m amazed at how far William has come and how he’s up front every week. He’s good on short tracks or speedways. Alex won four.
I think with their age and the way — the main thing is the chemistry inside our company, the sharing and the working together. The crew chiefs — our drivers, when they debrief, they listen to each other and they share information and they try to make the other guy better.
It’s never been — the chemistry in our company has never been this good. With everybody’s age, and I’m hoping that we — I don’t know if we can do this again, but I hope we’ve got a lot of winds ahead of us.
But specifically the 5 team, 11 wins, the all-time laps led, why did they do that in their first year together?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, I think we had a great baseline, but Cliff is a great leader. We could see the momentum coming toward the end of the year with Jimmie, and then Kyle steps in to a program with the cars that were all — if you look at what they’ve accomplished this year with all the wins and everybody won races, I think the table was almost set for him.
Now, when he got in the car, his talent did the rest. These guys, the chemistry between the two, and if you watch this guy, he’s like rock solid. He doesn’t shake or get nervous, and I go whacko trying to watch what they do.
I think sometimes you just hit on something, and we really hit on something with these two.
Cliff, he said you’re rock solid. We’ve all sort of noticed that. You’ve worked with Ray and you’ve worked with Chad —
RICK HENDRICK: Chad raised him.
What are you pegged at normally? What’s your resting heart rate, and what’s a Cliff Daniels party look like?
CLIFF DANIELS: My resting heart rate is too high. I did not sleep any last night. I have not slept any before any Cup race all season long, just so you know. Larson asked me today, Did you sleep last night? I’m like, No, I didn’t sleep last night. I haven’t slept before a race all season long. I mean, even — pick a random race in the middle of the year. I did not sleep. I’m just telling you, I didn’t —
RICK HENDRICK: That’s a total surprise to me. I’m shocked.
CLIFF DANIELS: You can ask my wife, and I promise you all the time she lectures me: You have to get sleep, you have to get sleep. I cannot sleep because I hold myself to a really high standard, and I think the folks around me know that.
We have the character of guys on our team that I can hold them to that standard. You can ask any one of them today. I made fun of our target guy, Cesar Villaneuva, who’s been in the sport a long time, had a great time with him today. Had a great time with Steven Legendre, our engine tuner. Jesse Saunders, our car chief who wasn’t even here today, I was talking smack to him over texts.
We keep it fun, but part of the reason we can keep it fun is they know I’m going to hold myself to a high standard. So if I hold them to a high standard, it’s equal. They know I’m going to beat myself up as hard as I beat them up. They know that.
For me the celebration, if I make it through tonight, which I’m sure Larson is going to try to kill me tonight — remember, I didn’t sleep last night. So if he tries to kill me tonight, which I’m sure he will, if I make it to tomorrow evening, I will be a long time with no sleep and, similar to that, in the meantime.
What do you do when you’re not sleeping?
CLIFF DANIELS: So last night I knew what was coming. I saw the writing on the wall. So I got in bed at probably 9:00 p.m. local time, and I saw every hour, every single hour all the way until I got up at 6:30, whatever. Somewhere around 2:00 a.m. I got up, drank some water, kind of walked around.
We stay right over here where the stadiums are. So I could see all the folks leaving after the hockey game, and they went out to the bars and stuff.
And I’m going to be honest, there’s some Bible devotionals that I read and watch and listen to, and did that in the middle of the night. And I knew that my anxiety that I’ve had all year long probably wasn’t warranted, but it’s still a real thing.
So when Larson was like, Man, you didn’t sleep last night? I was like, Dude, I haven’t slept all year. So I’m right where I should be. It’s okay. He’s like, Really? I didn’t know that. I’m like, Yeah, I hide it from you. It’s okay.
So, yeah, I never sleep the night before a Cup race. Probably never will. As long as he’s my driver, with Kyle Larson as your driver, you’re the weak link, not him. That’s the way I see it.
Cliff, you guys were getting ready for that final stop. You had everything set up, and looked like you were trying to seize an opportunity, trying to be ready for that. What did you see come off of the 13 that started getting you to lobby with the official that something came off?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, I got super amped up because the 13 car, I don’t know what led to it, but he came by us on the front straightaway, and about the time he crossed the start-finish line I saw a brake rotor five inches in length tumble down the front straightaway right in front of me, and I saw where it landed.
I started jumping up and down and trying to get John Manno (phonetic), the official that’s in our pit stall, his attention. I was screaming at Tyler, our spotter, on channel 2 because, number one, I didn’t want anything to happen to our car or any playoff car at that point. Even though we were running fourth. And of course, number two, I felt that there should have been a caution for that watching what happened right in front of me, just to reset the field and give us a shot. That’s what I saw.
Cliff, obviously this is just your second full-time season atop the box, and it kind of gives shades of Chad and Jimmie and the success that they had very early on, and now you have 10 races won and your first season winning and a championship to go along with it. How much do you think after working so closely with Chad he’s influenced the way you direct the team?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yeah, he has for sure, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that if it weren’t for me — throughout the course of my time at Hendrick Motorsports, understanding the way that Mr. H has led our company, I still remember this so clearly like it was yesterday, it was 2018, our team — our company, excuse me, was not at all where it needed to be.
Mr. H stood up on stage as the leader of Hendrick Motorsports and said, Hey, I acknowledge that we’re not where we’re supposed to be, but we are going to take all the people in this room, we’re going to move some things around if we need to. But we’re not going to go fire a whole bunch of people. We’re going to take the people in this room and we’re going to lock arms and we’re going to get out of this together. That was in 2018.
You know all the statistics showed that 2017 and 2018 were not good years for our company. To build out of that, to where we are now, was first and foremost a testament to him.
And then of course the influence of Chad and of Jimmie on our team will always be there. Myself, I would say seven or eight other team members on the 5 team had been with Chad and Jimmie either for the seventh championship like I was in 2016. Some of the guys had been there even before that. We’ve all learned from them.
They were the true benchmark for a champion on and off the track for so many years that the threads of Chad and Jimmie are always going to be with us. I’ve also been fortunate to learn from guys like Alan Gustafson, whose approach is a little different from Chad. I think Alan probably sees the 30,000-foot view of life and your season and your approach week in and week out more than anyone.
And then Chad was the guy that has always pushed and focused on the tiniest little detail that you could possibly find on a race car to make it faster. If it weren’t for guys like that that I could learn from, and of course the leadership from Mr. H to keep our company together, to keep everybody rowing the canoe in the same direction, again, I know it sounds so basic and simple to say, but if it weren’t for that, our team would not be where it is today.
Talk about just three years ago when you did get tapped and brought up to the top of the box, did you think at that point that you could ever be sitting at the table here?
CLIFF DANIELS: Yes and no. The yes part is because with Mr. H, Jeff Andrews, Chad Knaus, all the other guys in our company that their passion for making sure that the crew chiefs, the teams, the company has the tools and the resources that we need, the people that we need to get it done, that’s a formula for success.
I’m not unique in sitting here in this position. Mr. H won the championship last year with Alan and Chase. He’s won it so many times with so many different crew chiefs and drivers that he knows the recipe to success. You know, then knowing the strength of our team, I knew that it could happen that way.
And I guess the no part to the question is nobody could ever dream of having a season like we’ve had this year. You can’t script this. You can’t even draw this up on paper. I think even winning one race a year in the Cup Series is a big accomplishment.
Then when you look at the season that we’ve had this season, honestly, it’s not sank in for me yet. It’s probably going to take a little while. It’s truly a dream come true.
Cliff, you mentioned Bible devotionals earlier; we know you value your relationship with God with all your posts on social media, especially saying “God is good” all the time. What would you say is one of those devotionals or Bible verses that you’ve held on throughout this year especially with it being so successful?
CLIFF DANIELS: There really hasn’t been one in particular, and I think Mr. H is pretty familiar with this. A guy named Mack Brock, he’s a Christian singer, been around a long time, part of Elevation Church, he actually came to Hendrick Motorsports this week on Wednesday.
I have looked up to him for a long time, and in my journey of faith and a lot of things that have happened in my life with my family, my parents, just different aspects of my life, I’ve always looked up to him.
We have a — it’s called the John Hendrick fellowship lunch. It’s every Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. So Mack Brock came and sang for us this week. Some of the messages that he had were so powerful, I think he even did his own unique message for Mr. H this week.
Every week I feel like God shows me something different. He shows our team something different.
Look, as someone who tries to show that I have a Christian faith, I know that I’m probably not the best example all the time, but I know that there is a higher power that’s led to the success that we’ve had this year, for what Mr. H has done for us this year. I’m always going to be the first to acknowledge that.
This week leading up to Phoenix and this weekend was really powerful to have Mack there. He texted me before the race, gave me some words of encouragement. That was pretty powerful.
When Larson crossed the line, you were beyond speechless, obviously. And then when you were done standing there for a good five, ten minutes, you just pointed up to the sky. What was going through your mind realizing that you had won it all?
CLIFF DANIELS: Well, it’s also surreal. If you ask any crew chief in the Cup garage, Hey, you’re going to win 10 races plus the All-Star and you’re going to win the championship, do you believe that’s going to happen? Everybody would be like, Man, that’s crazy.
The sport is so tough. The rules are tough by design, which is a good thing. The competition is so tough.
You can’t really script what has happened for our team this year, and I really think that it’s been God’s hands and what has led us to this point, giving Mr. H the vision to bring Kyle back and to mentor Kyle the way that he has, to put our team together with him, to even believe in our team. Like I didn’t even know we were a team worth believing in, to be honest with you, because the last two years left a lot to be desired.
So having that belief in us and just seeing the way that the year has gone, there’s been a lot of things that have worked out, including today. If the caution doesn’t come out today, the 19 wins the championship and the 5 car finishes fourth, let’s be honest. I know that. I’ll be the first one to acknowledge that.
But we stuck to our guns. We had a set of changes dialed up for the last pit stop. The guys knocked it out of the park, and the way it all worked out was truly a blessing.
Mr. H, given the history of No. 5, you’ve had tremendous talent behind that wheel, but I was thinking about it as you were answering questions, and to expand on what Jim had said, I do believe, and correct me if I’m wrong, it’s been 25 years, 1996, when Terry Labonte won the last championship in the No. 5. Can you tell me what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling when you think it’s been 25 years ago since the 5 won a championship?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, we kind of parked the 5 when Dale wanted to run the 88. When we brought it back, it was very special because it was our first number. Mark Martin did a heck of a job in it. He had a shot at a championship. Terry did an unbelievable job.
I don’t know if you remember here when he hit the wall and broke his hand and we thought he had to park — we didn’t think he could race, and he got injections in his hand and went out and got the job done in the backup car.
No, I don’t think so we’ve probably given the 5 a chance. But any time you have your first number and it’s got such a history with the family, it’s special.
Everybody in motorsports was really excited about bringing it back, and then the colors and all. I think there will be some more championships with the 5 car.
Cliff, you said a minute ago you can’t script what’s happened to this team this year. You’ve obviously spoken a lot this year about Kyle and the talent that he is. At any time did you think to yourself what he’s doing is impossible? Like to come back, be as good as he is, as fast as this team was, did it just ever seem like what he was doing was impossible?
CLIFF DANIELS: In a way, yes. I think for all the obvious reasons that you’re alluding to. But then in another way, no, because I think when you look at his Cup career, I wasn’t intimately involved in his Cup career before obviously this year. He did have a little bit of a stigma that he couldn’t close and he ran dirt tracks a certain way and the way he approached racing was a certain way.
I do think that there’s a level of maturity that he has now as a champion driver, as a race-winning driver, whether it’s on dirt or on the pavement; that when you hear the way he gets out of the car after winning a race and critiques himself and knows in the back of his mind what he can do better the next time, man, that separates the men from the boys.
And I really think his introspective look at himself, to know, hey, man, yeah, I won that race, but I didn’t do the best job on the restart, and yeah, I had a good 1 and 2 and that’s what won me the race. If I would have had a better restart and if I would have done A, B and C on the restart, I would have done better, that’s coming from a guy that just won the race, name the race, could be dirt, late model, sprint car or Cup car. He and I have had a lot of those conversations.
It kind of forced me halfway through the year to change my perspective from just always thinking I was the weak link and to try to give him what he needed in the car to then put myself in his head space to understand where he lives with himself and then to help it, to help him solve the equation when he scripted up the equation, hey, I’m leading a 410 World of Outlaws sprint car race with three to go, here’s the lane I’m going to choose, here’s how I’m going to do the restart, here’s how I’m going to go into Turn 1.
He and I have had those conversations. I’m not the first guy to know anything about 410 World of Outlaws sprint car racing. But he’s opened up enough with me to help strategize his mindset and his approach to that.
I also know that Josh Wise has been a big part of that. That has helped us a lot throughout the year. And we even talked this morning about really three different scenarios that could happen at the end of the race that he needed to be ready for on offense, on defense or anywhere in between. Connecting at that level is pretty powerful.
Rick, next week you have the opportunity to close out an NHRA championship with Greg Anderson; what would that mean?
RICK HENDRICK: That would be pretty special. When he broke the record, that was a big deal for us. Again, it’s got that paint scheme on it. I think a lot of Greg, and that would be really — I don’t know how we could cap off a year any more special than to have him win that championship and then the 5 car win the Winston Cup deal.
I know he wants it really bad, so fingers crossed.
Mr. H, Kyle talked about watching last year’s Cup championship in the Hendrick Motorsports war room as kind of this full-circle moment. I’m assuming you kind of helped put that together. I know you were here at the track, but what do you remember about those early moments, kind of signing him and bringing him on and getting comfortable with him?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, the more I was around Kyle, the more I appreciated the kind of person he was in and all the things he was doing out in charity. I think last week or the week before, he visited three food banks and gave out a ton of money.
I got to know the person. I knew the racer but got to spending time with him and his family and how dedicated he was to doing the right thing.
He’s done everything he could to get back into the sport and carry the — be something we’re all proud of and he’s proud of. He’s been more talented than I thought he was, and he’s been an unbelievable person. He’s got a big heart, and he’s done a lot of things that nobody in here knows about. He doesn’t try to get publicity, and he’s just a good human being, and he’s got a tremendous amount of talent.
I’ve watched him with his kids, just the family guy he is, and the way they traveled around, he and his wife, taking turns driving the motor home, going to sprint car races. He’s good people. I didn’t realize — I knew he had talent, but I didn’t know his soul. He has really impressed me with the individual that he is.
Earlier this year you talked about wanting to keep this band together and wanting William and Chase to eventually retire with you guys. Is that still the plan, and what’s the plan for Kyle?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, I want to try to keep him — I hope he retires with me. I really like our lineup right now. I like just the chemistry between the four drivers. That’s important, that they get along. Of course they want to beat each other, but I’ve got a lot invested in William. I’ve got a lot invested in Chase, Alex and Kyle. I hope we can keep the band together because we’ve got such a good core working together.
I can’t emphasize enough, you don’t hear any friction between our guys and our crew chiefs. They really work well together.
To me that’s what makes an organization work is all the people really pulling together wanting to —
CLIFF DANIELS: It’s because of his leadership.
RICK HENDRICK: Making it better. But anyway, talented people. Marshall Carlson back there, he’s the president, doesn’t get any credit. He’s in the background. He’s working with sponsors, taking care of things. My grandson, he’s — we hope that we race for many, many years to come.
We’re in the people business. I don’t care what kind of business you’re in. Our automotive group wants to win. They want to be number one. They want to be the best. It kind of trickles down through both organizations. I’m just blessed with having really, really good people that want to work together.
THE MODERATOR: Mr. H, Cliff, thanks so much for all the time. Congratulations on an outstanding season, and try to enjoy the off-season. I know it’s going to be busy.
CLIFF DANIELS: Last thing I want to say, you guys do so much for us. All year long, I know you have a tough schedule in everything you do. Thank you for covering our sport the way you do, covering our team the way you do. Very special season for us, and I know you guys probably don’t always get the thanks you deserve, but thank you.
RICK HENDRICK: Happy holidays.
Jeff Gordon, how about that performance from this young man?
JEFF GORDON: Unbelievable. By the whole team, and Kyle Larson is a great talent. You give him a great race car and great race teams and he does amazing things. We’ve seen it before, seen it in other forms of racing. He and this pit crew and this team, they did it all year long. They got to this point.
What a battle. I just want to say Phoenix Raceway, NASCAR and all these fans that came out here today, this is what a championship weekend is supposed to feel like, and that was a championship battle. Great competitors and a great champion here.
You know better than anyone how important a good pit crew is. Is there a better example of a team win than this one you’ve ever seen, Jeff?
JEFF GORDON: Well, it was a total team effort not just from the whole season but from the whole weekend, how they prepared to go qualify and get that lap to win the pole, get the No. 1 pit stall, and they had great stops all day long, and an unfortunate caution that got them behind and then another one that helped him get another opportunity, and I think I heard it was like the second best stop of the entire year. That’s what championship teams do.