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Back together again: The windy road leads Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett to JR Motorsports

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Michael Annett‘s stomach was doing everything but agreeing with him.

“I would take a sip of water and it would come right back up,” Annett recalls.

His digestive system began to rebel four days before the 2016 NASCAR Cup Series night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Aug. 21 event was a big deal for Annett and his long-time sponsor, Pilot/Flying J. The company was using HScott Motorsports’ No. 46 car to advertise the upcoming “Battle at Bristol” college football game between Tennessee and Virginia Tech that it was the presenting sponsor for.

No amount of sponsor money – and Annett’s weeklong mantra of “I’ll be better tomorrow” – could rally his stomach to agreeable terms.

“I straight up told my guys, ‘I’ll be selling you guys short if I try to get into this car you worked too hard on preparing for me to go out there and be at 50 percent,’ ” Annett recalls.

When it became clear Annett wouldn’t be fit enough to drive, his “first thought” to replace him was a driver “not too far off my size” who he went way back with.

His once and soon-to-be future teammate, Justin Allgaier.

BREAKING THE ICE

Justin Allgaier’s racing memory of Annett begins on Feb. 9, 2008, in the ARCA season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

That day Allgaier could do nothing but stare at Annett’s rear bumper.

“I remember just reading that Pilot logo for the whole race,” says Allgaier, who won the ARCA championship that year.

The day in Daytona belonged to Annett, who considers his second and final ARCA win to be the height of his racing career, despite three years competing in the Cup Series.

“I still have the DVD of it,” Annett says. “I remember Michael McDowell sitting up there in the booth with (Rick Allen) and saying ‘Michael Annett is going to get too far out, they’re going to get a run.’ That lasted for about 10 laps, they never once gained a foot on me.”

Annett and Allgaier finished 1-2 that day and their careers continued on parallel tracks. Both were Xfinity Series rookies the next year, with Allgaier at Team Penske and Annett with Germain Racing.

“Even back then, he was a great race car driver and (had) relatively little experience compared to the patterns that a lot a drivers come up through our sport,” says Allgaier, who earned four top-fives his rookie year while Annett claimed four top 10s. “Heck, the guy … played semi-professional hockey until he decided to quit and go racing.”

The Midwestern sons, Allgaier from Illinois and Annett from Iowa, didn’t interact that much during their initial Xfinity tenure. But they began forming respect for each other after a last-lap crash at Dover International Speedway in 2010.

The two were jockeying for position just outside the top 10 when Allgaier made contact with Annett exiting Turn 4, sending Annett’s No. 15 car into the outside wall.

“When we came down the backstretch to pull into the garage I pulled right up and nailed him in the door,” says Annett.

Upon exiting his car, Annett did a “WWE butt drop” on the hood of Allgaier’s. Annett then leaned into Allgaier’s window to share his feelings before retreating to the garage.

About 10 minutes later, Allgaier approached to apologize. Annett objected.

“I don’t have to fix it Justin,” Annett told him. “All these guys have to fix it. Go apologize to them.”

“He was man enough, he walked up to the crew chief and apologized to him,” Annett says. “I got a lot of respect for him that day.”

That respect would continue to grow when the duo became teammates in the Cup Series four years later with HScott Motorsports. Allgaier, who earned three Xfinity wins in five full-time seasons, says it took only a “week or two” for him and Annett to establish a connection.

“Even the way we want the car set up is really, really close,” Annett says. “When we see something that’s not being done right, we call a spade a spade and stand up for ourselves. There’s a lot of guys (who) just kind of go with the flow and Justin’s not like that and neither am I.”

For two years Allgaier and Annett ran for HScott Motorsports. Allgaier earned the team’s only top five, in the 2015 spring race at Bristol. Through those two seasons, Allgaier produced an average finish of 26.15, Annett’s average was 34.2.

How does Annett know when he has a good teammate?

“When it’s not my day and it’s theirs’ and they try to make you better still,” Annett says. “They take the time out of their race weekend to make you better. I think that’s one of the best qualities you can have in a teammate.”

This was true even after Allgaier and HScott Motorsports parted ways and Allgaier joined JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series in 2016. The trust Annett had in Allgaier paid off when Annett’s stomach went on strike.

BACK TOGETHER AGAIN

Allgaier was experiencing a case of deja vu.

Nine months after his last race at HScott Motorsports, he was once again going through the race-day motions with most of the same names and faces he had for two years.

Allgaier officially took Annett’s place in the No. 46 at Bristol about 20 minutes before the driver’s meeting.

“So many things were normal to me,” Allgaier says. “It was pretty seamless being able to drive the car and plug right in.”

With Annett communicating with the team from home, Allgaier piloted the No. 46 over two days after a rain delay. The relief effort ended with Allgaier being involved in a Lap 359 crash and finishing last. It was his only Cup start of the year. Meanwhile, Annett missed the third start of his three Cup seasons.

Even though they had been teammates for two seasons, Annett says his relationship with Allgaier “blossomed” even more last year.

Allgaier joined Annett in Iowa for the charity golf tournament he hosts every year, which provided Allgaier a chance to see a side of Annett he had never seen before. The Allgaier family was even a regular presence at HScott Motorsports’ weekly beach volleyball game.

The bond the drivers forged paid dividends for Annett late last year when his racing future was in doubt with the fate of HScott Motorsports in question.

During a conversation one night, Allgaier recommended Annett reach out to JR Motorsports, the team he was pursuing an Xfinity title with.

“I look at the last 365 days and I’m beyond fortunate enough to have that opportunity and that would fit you perfectly,” Allgaier told Annett.

At the time, Allgaier was “pretty sure” nothing would come of it. But on Nov. 4, Annett was revealed as the fourth full-time driver for JR Motorsports.

After eight seasons in NASCAR driving for small teams that struggled to be competitive, Annett finds himself in the best position of his career. He joins the organization that won the 2014 Xfinity title and put two cars, including Allgaier’s, in the championship race last year.

“I’ve changed teams probably more than I would ever want to,” Annett says. “It’s probably been by far the easiest transition and everybody that’s part of our team has fit in really well at JRM.”

Nine years after he was stuck behind his teammate’s bumper at Daytona, Allgaier hopes they’ll be able to chase each other to the championship race with their teammates, veteran Elliott Sadler and rookie William Byron.

“If I didn’t think he had the talent, I wouldn’t have even tried to get him over to our shop,” Allgaier says.

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Denny Hamlin grabs Homestead pole, Martin Truex Jr. also on front row

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Denny Hamlin was last to make a final qualifying run but took the pole for Sunday’s and championship-deciding Ford EcoBoost 400.

Hamlin (173.980 mph) knocked Martin Truex Jr. (173.952) off the pole with a bonsai run around the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Love this racetrack, wish we would have a chance, but it’ll be another day and another year for us,” Hamlin told NBCSN. “I want to win, that’s all I care about.”

This is Hamlin’s second pole of his career (and second in the last three races) at Homestead, where he’s also a two-time Cup winner.

Truex is the highest qualifying driver of the four Championship 4 contestants.

“It was a good day overall,” Truex told NBCSN. “Hopefully, we’ll just make some minor adjustments (in Saturday’s two practice sessions) and get comfortable and get ready to race on Sunday.”

The other drivers are: Kyle Busch (qualified third, 173.930), Brad Keselowski (fifth, 172.452) and Kevin Harvick was the slowest of the four (ninth, 171.876).

“Not a bad lap, definitely was pole-worthy, so I hate that we weren’t able to get the No. 1 pit stall,” Busch told NBCSN. “I think we’re further ahead than we were 2015 when we won the whole thing.”

Keselowski told NBCSN: “It sure doesn’t feel bad, but there’s a long way to go. It’s just one day of a three-day weekend. … This is like a poker game. This is the deal, it’s qualifying. Tomorrow you start to see the turn of the cards with race trim. We’re not in a bad spot, not where we want to be, we still need a little speed obviously to run with the Toyotas, but we’re kind of first in class (among Ford teams) today.”

Harvick said to NBCSN: “Not exactly how I wanted it to go, but all-in-all I think we’re going to be fine. It’s not like we’re starting 39th or something.”

In addition to Hamlin, non-championship drivers that qualified in the top 12 include Matt Kenseth (fourth, 172.678), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (sixth, 172.359), Kyle Larson (seventh, 172.205), Kurt Busch (eighth, 172.106), Daniel Suarez (10th, 171.789), Ryan Blaney (11th, 171.255) and Trevor Bayne (12th, 171.124).

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start last because of an engine change in practice Friday. … Danica Patrick, who announced she will race next year in the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 before retiring, qualified 25th. … Sunday’s race will have 39 cars in the field.

Click here for qualifying results.

William Byron fastest in final Xfinity practice at Homestead-Miami

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William Byron was fastest in Friday’s final Xfinity Series practice at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Byron, who is one of four drivers in contention for the Xfinity Series Championship in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300, was the only driver to top 166 mph (166.087 mph).

Byron will jump to the NASCAR Cup Series next season, replacing Kasey Kahne.

The other three Championship 4 drivers in Saturday’s race were ninth-fastest Elliott Sadler (164.144 mph), 13th-fastest Justin Allgaier (163.503) and 15th-fastest Daniel Hemric (163.438).

Second through eighth were Ben Kennedy (165.685), Cole Custer (165.487), Christopher Bell (165.158), Sam Hornish Jr. (165.138), Casey Mears (165.057), Brennan Poole (164.880) and Tyler Reddick (164.179). Tenth-fastest was Ty Majeski (163.939).

Saturday’s championship race will be televised on NBCSN at 3:30 p.m. ET.

Click here for the full practice speed chart.

Chase Briscoe earns Miami Truck pole; Austin Cindric highest of Championship 4 drivers

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Chase Briscoe took the pole for tonight’s Camping World Truck Series season-ending and championship-deciding Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Briscoe was fastest with a speed of 167.499 mph, followed by Ben Rhodes (167.348 mph), who will also sit on the front row when the green flag drops tonight.

Three of the four Championship 4 drivers didn’t qualify as well as they might have liked.

One did, however, as 19-year-old Austin Cindric qualified third (166.831). Cindric and Briscoe are both competing in the final race for Brad Keselowski Racing, which is folding after this season.

As for the other three Championship 4 drivers, two-time Truck champ Matt Crafton qualified eighth (165.614), defending series champ Johnny Sauter (165.092) qualified 11th, and Christopher Bell (165.309) failed to advance past the first round of qualifying. He’ll start tonight’s championship race 13th.

As for the rest of the top 12 qualifiers who are not running for the championship, Grant Enfinger was fourth (166.590) followed by Noah Gragson (165.909), Ryan Truex (165.848) and Justin Haley in seventh (165.705). Also, Stewart Friesen qualified ninth (165.431), Kaz Grala was 10th (165.203) and Myatt Snider was 12th (161.575).

The Ford EcoBoost 200 will take the green flag shortly after 8 p.m. ET. The race will be televised on Fox Sports 1.

Click here for the full qualifying grid.

Kaz Grala joining JGL Racing full-time in Xfinity next season

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Kaz Grala will make the move to the Xfinity Series in 2018 when he competes full-time in the No. 24 Ford for JGL Racing, the team announced Friday.

Grala, 18, makes the move after one season in the Camping World Truck Series with GMS Racing. Grala earned one win, in the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway. He is the youngest driver to win a national NASCAR race at Daytona.

Multiple drivers piloted the No. 24 this season, including Dylan Lupton, Corey LaJoie, Jeb Burton and Drew Herring. JGL Racing also fielded the No. 28 for Dakoda Armstrong, but the car hasn’t run since Kentucky due to a lack of sponsorship.

“I am beyond excited about the opportunity to drive for JGL Racing next year full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series,” Grala said in a press release. “I’ve been watching Xfinity races since I was a little kid, so to be able to compete at that high of a level is nothing short of a dream come true. I can’t thank James Whitener (owner of JGL Racing) and everyone at JGL enough for this opportunity.”

Grala has five top fives and an average finish of 14.1 in the No. 33 truck ahead of tonight’s season finale in the Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

JGL Racing’s move from Toyota to Ford coincides with the team entering a technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing.

“These are exciting times for the JGL Racing organization,” Whitener said in a press release.  “We appreciate the support we have received from Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing over the last few years. We felt that in order for our team to make the next step in our growth process that we needed a more robust technical alliance behind us – and this opportunity with Ford Performance and Roush Fenway Racing provided us that and made the most sense. We look forward to finishing out the season in our No. 24 car and then we will turn our attention to 2018 and getting all of the proper pieces into place.”