Through his first 17 full time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Jimmie Johnson had one crew chief – Chad Knaus. The duo would quickly become one of the best driver-crew chief combinations in the sport. Combined, they had won seven championships and 83 races.
But, following Johnson’s record tying seventh title in 2016, the finishes started to decline. By time 2018 hit, Johnson and Knaus resembled nothing like their oldselves. So, a change came for this season.
Knaus would move over to the No. 24 Chevrolet team with William Byron and Johnson would get a new crew chief in Kevin Meendering. Unfortunately, the season hasn’t started the way they had hoped for. So, after one crew chief through 17 seasons, Johnson will get his second in 22 races.
Jimmie Johnson during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway on February 10, 2019 in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Hendrick Motorsports has named Cliff Daniels as the new crew chief for Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet team. Daniels will assume the role immediately and be atop the pit box for Sunday’s road course race at Watkins Glen International.
Daniels, 31, won the 2016 Cup Series championship as Johnson’s race engineer. The Smithfield, Virginia, native joined the No. 48 team in December 2014, moved into Hendrick Motorsports’ competition systems group following the 2018 season and rejoined the No. 48 team as race engineer last month at Sonoma Raceway.
“We have great confidence in Cliff’s ability to win races with Jimmie and the team,” said Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick. “He’s a natural leader and tremendously talented from both a technical and communication standpoint. Cliff’s familiarity with Jimmie and the No. 48 team culture will benefit us a ton. He will bring the spark that’s been our missing ingredient.”
Daniels will replace Meendering, who will remain with Hendrick Motorsports in a senior competition role. Meendering joined the No. 48 team following the 2018 season.
“Kevin is a talent,” Hendrick said. “We have areas where he can make a major impact and help all four of our teams be successful. Everyone thinks the world of him, and we plan to keep him as a key member of our organization for as long as he wants to be here.”
Through 21 races in 2019, Johnson, 43, has one pole position and eight top-10 finishes including three top-fives. He is currently 17th in the driver standings, 12 points below the playoff cut line.
“Cliff has really shined since he came back to the ‘48,’” Johnson said. “When he returned, there was an immediate change in the team dynamic that all of us felt. We’ve worked together for a long time, have a ton of mutual respect and a shared vision. I have no doubt the strong connection and working relationship is going to pay dividends right away.
“I’m so grateful to Kevin. He’s a truly awesome person who I think very, very highly of. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with him in his new role. He’s a brilliant guy and will make all of us better.”
Daniels is a former stock car driver who raced late models in and around Virginia at tracks like Langley, Southside and South Boston. After earning a mechanical engineering degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he was hired by RAB Racing in 2011. He was a race engineer for driver Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing for two seasons (2013 and 2014) before joining Hendrick Motorsports.
“We have an opportunity to win an eighth championship and a lot more races with Jimmie,” Daniels said. “I’m proud to be in this position and have total faith in the team and our ability to perform at the level everyone expects. We have the best driver, the best organization and the best leadership, so everything we need to be successful is in place. It’s always been my goal to become a crew chief, and I’m thankful to Mr. Hendrick for his confidence.”
This was definitely a move to put a jolt into the team because Johnson’s stats now are actually more on par for 2016 than it has been since.
His average finish this year is 15.1, the best since 2016 (14.0). His average starting spot is 13.8, also the best since 2016. He has more top fives this season than last (3-2) and already has eight top 10’s through 21 races where he had just 11 in 36 last year. The problem is, he’s still not on the good side of the playoffs and they’re fading. Johnson’s last three finishes are 30th, 30th and 15th respectively. He hasn’t won a race in his last 80 attempts. He’s only led 81 laps as a whole. While he’s better, he’s still not contending like he should.
So, in comes a move to shake things up in hopes to make the new direction speed up.
Johnson, has just nine top five finishes combined since the start of the 2017 season. He had at least 11 in every year since 2003 before. He’s also scored 11 top 10 finishes in each of the last two seasons. He had at least 16 every year of his career prior. From 2002 through 2015, Johnson had 20 or more top 10’s every year.
Also, from 2004 through 2014, Johnson had led at least 1,000 laps in nine of 11 seasons. The fewest he led in that time frame was 547 laps. Since 2015, he’s led 558, 737, 217, 40 and now 81 laps for a season respectively.