By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Six years ago, Michael Annett’s career drastically changed at Daytona International Speedway when a broken sternum sidelined him 6-8 weeks, ending his bid of contending for the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship, where in the previous season, he finished fifth in points.
Ever since that gloomy afternoon, Annett’s view of the sport didn’t change but his performances created a whirlwind of struggles in NASCAR. Scoring only two top-fives in 91 Xfinity Series starts, numbers that’s undesirable especially the equipment he runs for which is JR Motorsports, a top-tier team.
“It really doesn’t affect me at all other than we had a really good season the year before and really had some big momentum,” Annett on the 2013 crash. “Then everything changed, and I put it on myself. I didn’t bounce back the way I should of and never really got back to where I was. I don’t know why honestly because nothing inside me changed.”
All the negatives were thrown out the window during Saturday’s NASCAR Racing Experience 300 at Daytona as soon as he stared at the winner’s trophy during the driver’s meeting and with 45 laps to go, the Des Moines, Iowa native put his No. 1 Pilot J Chevrolet Camaro in front.
From there, drivers struggled making their moves to dethrone Annett, due in most part of the extended bumper that’s made passing on the bottom harder than evening traffic in downtown Seattle.
While words like “snooze fest” and “anticlimactic” will dominate the headlines, but for me, it’ll be that after 229 Xfinity Series tries, Annett is a NASCAR winner JRM’s 45th series victory.
Sure, it’s a superspeedway race, where anyone that’s in the right spot could win these races, but this victory couldn’t have come at pivotal time for the series veteran, who’s been heavily criticized by fans.
The main reason behind this stigma is that Annett is viewed as a driver that’s holding a top ride at JR Motorsports, and if it wasn’t for his secured sponsorships, he would’ve been out of the sport.
“I’ve taken a lot of criticism the past couple of years, and I’ve earned that criticism,” said Annett. “I’ve put everything I had into this team, into the car this offseason just to make sure there’s no variables that we can control and didn’t. I’ve never seen so much work go into a speedway car and it doesn’t have a scratch on it.”
Meanwhile, every teammate that he’s had are competing for wins on a weekly basis, with some winning championships and climbing up the racing ladder.
The results do show their case because it wasn’t until Bristol in August (the series’ 22nd race) that Annett scored his first top-10 of 2018. He would score two more top-10s but compared to his other teammates that finished in the top-seven in points, Annett missed the playoffs and wound up 14th in points.
Annett said that his season wasn’t acceptable and considers it one of the lowest points of his racing career which led to the spark he needed to re-boost his career.
“Knowing the equipment that I was in and missing the playoffs was unacceptable,” said Annett. “The second that checkered flag dropped at Las Vegas and we weren’t in the playoffs, that’s where the spark probably was. To make sure something like that never happens again, and that’s what started it.
“I never want to be in that position again with the opportunity I’ve ever had. I told Dale that it’s not a team, but a family over there. It’s fun to be a part of and I’m glad that I’m doing my part.”
It shall also be noted that from 2014-16, Annett moved up to the NASCAR Cup Series, where a 13th-place finish in the 2015 Daytona 500 was his only top-15 finish and ranks second behind Cole Whitt with the most Cup starts without a top-10 at 106 starts.
Performances doesn’t lie, and yes Annett’s career has been underwhelming, but I’ve felt that it’ll take the right personnel to get someone on the right track towards strong results, and that can be attributed to last summer when Travis Mack, who was let go by Levine Family Racing, was appointed as Annett’s new crew chief.
While it took multiple starts for people to notice their chemistry, Dale Jr. felt they would the moment Mack became available and paired him with Annett in a time the team needed changes to be made.
“When Travis became available, I thought as soon as I heard the news, we needed him to crew chief Michael because I know Travis’ mentality,” said Dale Jr. “His personality, his fire and his drive is exactly what would ignite Michael’s passion and drive, so I was so thankful that we were able to organize that union between them.
“Travis was sort of down about his situation having been let go from his job as crew chief for the No. 95 car. I told him: ‘Think about what that would feel like to go to victory lane with Michael and how that might make feel as a person and profession?’
“Realizing that dream, and it’s so awesome to watch. I’m glad that I’m a part of it and this is a great day.”
Mack said the critics just need to believe in them rebuild and get behind Annett, the driver who wants his team to excel in the sport instead of riding around mid-pack as his teammates get all the glory.
“He wants to run good so bad. He just needs the people around him to believe in him like we have. Just coming in with the mentality that we’re not going to accept running fifth or 10th or 15th. That’s not accepted to me, so we’re pushing each other to get better. They can feel the sense of urgency and see the improvements. I want all teams to look at us and say that we’re the best team out there, so we’re working towards that goal.”
With Saturday’s victory under their belt, they have the duration of the regular season to build on their momentum and prove the No. 1 team isn’t a one-hit wonder, something that Dale Jr. believes it has already begun.
“Michael’s not the same person that we hired. He’s changed a lot in the last several months that we worked with him.” said Dale Jr. “I’d imagine that when you’re relegated to the back of the field regardless of your efforts, it’s got to be extremely frustrating where you get yourself programmed to approach your job a certain way. We had to convince Michael to change his approach and mentality towards racing. Encourage him to believe in his potential and reignite his passion and enjoyment for driving in racing.”