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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Michael Annett, former hockey player

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A lot of race car drivers come from dirt. Others rise through the ranks on asphalt.

One driver in the Xfinity Series started out on a much colder surface.

Michael Annett, driver of the No. 5 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, first tried his hand at hockey.

A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Annett once competed on Team Illinois, which won the 2002 Calgary Mac’s AAA Hockey Tournament Championship when he was 16. Annett was with the Waterloo (Iowa) Black Hawks in the United States Hockey League when it won the Clark Cup Championship.

The Most Improved Player in 2004, he was only able to stretch his talent so far.

“Playing hockey I was 5-10 (186 pounds), which is not very good stats as a hockey player to be on a D-1 team,” Annett told NBC Sports. “I was kind of the ‘Rudy.’ I just worked my tail off. I was probably the least talented guy on every team I played on.

“The (racing) opportunity opened up and I got my parents talked into it,” Annett said. “We lost in the playoffs that year in 2005 and a week later we were in a Silver Crown car down at Memphis Motorsports Park. My dad wanted to see if I had any talent whatsoever.”

Within two years Annett won his first of two ARCA Racing Series races for Bill Davis, claiming victory at Talladega Superspeedway. A year later, he beat future JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier to win at Daytona International Speedway.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

NBC SportsHow did you and sponsor Pilot Flying J get hooked up? You’ve been together for several years now.

Annett: I’ve been privileged and definitely humbled with everything I’ve been able to do. But my dad (Harold Annett) does own a big trucking company (TMC Transportation) and Pilot Flying J is where they buy their fuel from. That relationship there got us in the door. It wasn’t like a given, but it kept the door open to give a proposition. That’s been huge and then the relationship has just grown. They’re friends now, they’re not necessarily just a sponsor.

NBC Sports: What was it that first drew your attention to auto racing? What’s your earliest memory of the sport?

Annett: I was at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway when I was, I think three or four days old, and they scheduled my c-section so that we could be there. My dad owned a World of Outlaws sprint car team (with driver Sammy Swindell). From that weekend on I was at the dirt track watching sprint cars every weekend of my life. In ’93, they went Busch Grand National racing and weren’t competitive and my dad just kind of said, ‘I’m done spending money. I’m going to focus on the trucking company.’ Probably a month later I was at a learn-to-skate program starting my hockey career.

NBC Sports: Do remember the first time you saw your name or face on merchandise?

Annett: I do. It was when I was running ARCA, driving that 28 car for Bill Davis. It was actually a t-shirt. I had an idea pop up in my head and sat down and started drawing it, designing it out. I always like it and you can see it on my fireproof underwear that I wear. Growing up playing hockey, I liked the big number on the back like you’re wearing a hockey jersey. That’s kind of my trademark apparel.

NBC Sports: What’s the best race you’ve ever been in?

Annett: I can’t remember the year (2008), but it was when I was driving the 22 truck (for Bill Davis), at that time. It was ORP (Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis), they change the name of that track every year. One of the best races I’ve ever ran and sure enough, passing for third place with about three laps to go, I spun out. Just where I was to where I was when I spun out. … I remember Slugger Labbe, he was spotting for me. I was down on the (inside) through the grass at ORP, while everybody is up at the wall and I was down on the bottom passing cars. He said, ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but keep doing it.’

NBC Sports: What’s your least favorite part of race day?

Annett: Waiting around. I’d like to be able to wake up, put on my firesuit and go to work. Some of those schedules where we have to wait around three hours for the driver’s meeting, then you get an hour to change and get something to eat. Then you go sit on pit road for 45 minutes taking pictures. I don’t mind the taking pictures part, but you’re still waiting around. I just want to get going.

NBC Sports: What’s the most emotional reaction to a sporting event you’ve had that wasn’t auto racing?

Annett: When the Falcons lost (the Super Bowl). I’m a big Falcons fan and I had a lot of money riding on that game. … Just kind of in disbelief. I kept telling everybody, because I started getting cocky when they scored coming into the third quarter, I’m like ‘(the Patriots) can’t come back’ and then I looked over at my girlfriend and I go, ‘If anybody can come back, Tom Brady will.’ And sure enough.

NBC Sports: How long have you been a Falcons fan?

Annett: About four years. I’m really good friends with Reed Sorenson and he’s from Peachtree City, Georgia. So his whole life he’s been a Falcons fan. He started taking me down to games and it just became my team. Being from Des Moines, Iowa, you kind of just (pick a team), you’re not really born into a team.

Previous Q&A’s

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Looking at top 10 race start totals among active, full-time NASCAR Cup drivers

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Last Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his 600th career start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, finishing 16th in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

That achievement made Earnhardt just the second active driver to the reach the mark, following Matt Kenseth, who has 619 starts after the Auto Club 400.

How do those numbers compare to the rest of their competitors? Who is the next driver that will reach a big start mark?

Here’s a look at the top 10 active full-time Cup drivers when it comes to starts in NASCAR’s premier series:

Matt Kenseth – 619 starts

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 600 starts

Kurt Busch – 581 starts (would make 600th start on Aug. 19 in the Bass Pro Shops / NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway)

Kevin Harvick – 579 starts (would make 600th start on Sept. 9 in Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway)

Ryan Newman – 553 starts

Jimmie Johnson – 548 starts

Jamie McMurray – 515 starts

Kasey Kahne – 473 starts

Kyle Busch – 431 starts

Martin Truex Jr. – 410 starts

Kevin Harvick: Kyle Larson is the best driver to enter NASCAR since Jeff Gordon in 1993

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Kevin Harvick made his debut as a SiriusXM Satellite Radio host Tuesday night and made some news by announcing Stewart-Haas Racing was withdrawing its Phoenix appeal.

But those weren’t the most interesting comments made by the 2014 champion, who had a strong opinion on the most recent winner in NASCAR’s premier series.

Kyle Larson is the best driver to come into this sport since Jeff Gordon in my opinion,” Harvick said. “I think Kyle Larson is that good.”

How good is that?

Well, let’s peruse a partial list of drivers (and their credentials) who have entered NASCAR’s premier series since Gordon’s arrival in 1993 and Larson’s in 2014:

Jimmie Johnson: Seven championships, tied for the most in NASCAR history. Also led the points and scored three wins as a rookie. He is the only driver who has qualified for the playoffs in all 13 seasons.

–Tony Stewart: The three-time series champion became the first Cup rookie to win in 12 years (and notched three victories in his first season). The 1997 IndyCar champion is regarded by many as his generation’s greatest.

Matt Kenseth: The 2000 rookie of the year won the 2003 championship and has failed to qualify for the playoffs only once in his career.

Denny Hamlin: The 2006 rookie of the year has made the championship round twice and has won in 11 consecutive seasons in Cup.

Kyle Busch: The 2015 Cup champion has won in 12 straight seasons in Cup and has 171 victories across NASCAR’s top three national series.

Kurt Busch: The 2004 series champion has 29 wins on the premier circuit, finished sixth in the 2014 Indianapolis 500 and also qualified for a Pro Stock event in the NHRA.

Brad Keselowski: The 2012 series champion has 21 victories with Team Penske since 2011 and has emerged as NASCAR’s top restrictor-plate racer.

Joey Logano: Two-time championship round contender and is tied with Johnson for most victories (14) since the 2014 season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: A two-time Daytona 500 winner missed the last half of the 2016 season but was a title contender in 2014 and ’15.

–Harvick: His performance since aligning with crew chief Rodney Childers at SHR three years ago has been astounding: the 2014 championship, 12 victories and more than 5,700 laps led on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

So given all of those names … what would be the purpose of Harvick’s effusively praising the Chip Ganassi Racing driver?

“He’s just a kid that not enough people know about, but he’s won and wins in everything that he’s ever driven,” Harvick said. “He’s just a racer. … I think he’s laser focused on what he does as a race car driver, and I think he’s the best talent to come through this sport in a long, long time and is going to win a ton of races because he’s that good.”

Hey, wait a minute. When is the 24-year-old’s contract up?

Chip Ganassi notoriously is secretive about the lengths of his drivers’ deals (in IndyCar and NASCAR, particularly because it wants to avoid having its stars poached by other teams). It’s believed that Larson re-signed toward the end of 2015, but it’s unclear how long his deal runs.

That’s why the last part of Harvick’s riff on Larson could have been telling.

“I hope Ganassi has a good contract with him because every team in the garage wants a Kyle Larson. He’s a guy that you can put in your race cars and win races even on a day when they’re not the best race cars. He’s going to make them look good.”

By the way, it also is worth noting that Ganassi was miffed four years ago when Stewart and Gordon had high praise for Larson. The team owner hinted he thought both drivers had motives of courting Larson to join their teams (Gordon openly has spoken about meeting Larson in his Hendrick Motorsports office years ago and pitching him on the organization).

Should Atlanta Motor Speedway have listened to drivers in delaying its repave?

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The delayed repaving of Atlanta Motor Speedway proves that the Cup Drivers Council successfully can lobby for what it wants.

Is that always a good thing, though?

NASCAR on NBC analysts Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte discussed that topic on Tuesday’s episode of NASCAR America (watch video of the discussion above).

“I think they’re the No. 1 factor in this decision,” Letarte said of the drivers. “While I side with the drivers that the old pavement is great for racing, and I’m a big fan of it, I’m not a track owner or promoter. I can’t imagine Atlanta Motor Speedway wanted to spend all that money to repave just because they thought they should. There had to be good reasons behind it.

“I think the global question is, ‘How did we get here?’ It seems to me this is the most public display of the drivers being vocal about a situation, and it ended up going their way. They didn’t want it to be repaved, Atlanta heard them and changed their decision. The question is, is it good for NASCAR to have your drivers that vocal. I’m not sure. Obviously, they are one of the biggest stakeholders and have to put the race on, but should it be a track decision or a driver decision?”

Burton said ultimately the decision should belong to the 1.54-mile speedway.

“The drivers trying to influence the decision, I think that’s a good thing just making the track owner understand, ‘Hey we love this surface,’” Burton said. “But I don’t think Atlanta Motor Speedway said, ‘Hey, let’s spend a couple of million dollars for the heck of it.’”

The risk is if the track falls apart because of its age or if massive delays are incurred by rain (such as Texas Motor Speedway last November).

“If something happens – if a piece of asphalt goes through a radiator (because of a crumbling surface), no word (should come) from the drivers,” Burton said. “The drivers are going to have to be perfectly quiet on that one.”

Said Letarte: “I don’t disagree with drivers being vocal, but be careful what you wish for, because now they got it. They got the old pavement for another weekend. If we get weather, or have an issue and can’t get cars on the racetrack, I hope those same drivers step up and back (track president) Ed Clark, who has now backed them and given them the old pavement for another year.”

Clark told NBC Sports.com’s Dustin Long that the track will make a few sealer patches for the 2018 race, which he expects could be the last on the surface that has been in place since 1997. Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns Atlanta, repaved Kentucky last year and received positive reviews.

“Are you just delaying the inevitable if you’re going to have to pave it in 2018?” Burton asked. “I don’t know what you’re really buying other than one more race. My biggest concern is they wanted to pave it for a reason. They understand that paving racetracks is problematic. This group put a ton of effort into Kentucky so when they repaved Kentucky it wasn’t like the other repaves. They understand the problems with paving new racetracks. My concern is they wanted to do it, now they’re not doing it, is there a problem that’s created that we’re not aware of?

“Give the drivers credit. They brought an issue up. … If the track really had to be paved, I don’t think that Ed Clark or anyone  would say, ‘Just listen to the drivers and to heck with whatever happens.’ I believe the racetrack and owners have confidence that with changes and small improvements, it’s OK not to pave it. So ultimately the responsibility falls on (the drivers). If it doesn’t go well, the drivers have to stand up and back them and say, ‘Thank you for working with us, sorry it didn’t work out, thank you for making it work.’”

Kligerman: May the downforce be with you! Or is the ultimate downforce actually . . . none?

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If you’re reading this, I will assume you are a racing fan. If you’re a racing fan, then you will know the most-watched form of racing worldwide started its season this past weekend  —  Formula One.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the next most-watched form of racing conducted one of its 36 points-paying events in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series.

Both series involve four-wheeled machinery, human drivers and Monster Energy sponsorship.

But that’s where the similarities end. Because the two largest racing series in the world have decided to go in two completely opposite directions in how they want to entertain their fans.

And I am not talking about technology, formats, or grid girls. These two massive series have chosen the opposing ends of the spectrum on something that only 30 years ago was elusive.

Downforce.

In Formula One, the teams and the sanctioning body agreed two years ago to make the 2017 cars “5–7 seconds faster” than their 2015 counterparts. How would they do this? By opening up the aerodynamic rules and therefore adding downforce — tons of it.

In NASCAR, we have done the opposite over the last few years. The level of achievable downforce constantly has been reduced by cutting spoilers and splitters and getting stricter on the aerodynamic rules.

Which brings me to a question I was asked.

This weekend, a friend texted (I know, groundbreaking stuff in the year 2017) to ask, “How do you feel about the cars being stuck to the ground vs. skating around? I think you are on to something where road racing stuck to the ground is interesting and oval skating around is interesting.”

(This also was groundbreaking because someone was asking my opinion. Which comes with a disclaimer: It’s free for a reason.)

But in all seriousness, the question was incredible. The reason was that it was only a mere 30 years ago when the conversation in racing was more about “How fast could cars possibly go?” or “Will humans be able to keep up with the speed of racing cars?”

Now with the advent of technology, we no longer question how fast a car could go, because we know. When the F1 world simply can tweak rules with the knowledge it’s going to be exactly “X” amount faster, there is no more mystery.

As a sport, racing has reached the point where it’s no longer, “May the force be with you.” It’s “How much force would you like?”

This monumental change in philosophy is why, as I write this, there are amateur “aerodynamicists” on Twitter, commentators on YouTube and alleged experts on the Internet telling you whether NASCAR or F1 is right.

On one hand they will tell you the high downforce makes it faster, which is better! On the other, they will tell you downforce is the devil incarnate and should be eliminated from the sport.

The thing is, neither series’ race was particularly memorable.

In Australia, you had a pass for the lead occur when neither driver could see each other (via pit strategy). While the biggest storyline out of the California race was that the driver who seemed forever the bridesmaid finally won.

Nothing of what occurred will be replayed on YouTube illegally for years to come. And I don’t think either showed us a clear-cut path to the elusive “Great Racing!” everyone wants.

No, it’s become apparent that even with all the knowledge in the world about cars and aerodynamics, there still is mystery in what makes a good race occur.

How did I answer my friend’s question?

Fast road racing cars look insane. Meanwhile, sideways and dynamic oval racing looks insane. Speed is tough to see on an oval. It’s far easier to see and appreciate on a street or road course.

That’s why we have what we have.

Road racing needs downforce to achieve incredible speeds and produce what I described watching qualifying from Australia as “Sparking, twitchy, on-the-ragged-edge stuff.” It was obvious the drivers were at the limits of possible control.

While with low downforce in NASCAR, we see far more dynamic slides. The drivers are working harder. And the speeds may be way down as they get into a race run, but it doesn’t hurt the show whatsoever. Seeing cars that visibly move around and make the driver fight is far more interesting than watching a car go in circles on rails.

We never might know which philosophy — low or high downforce – is correct. But the most memorable and best race of any premier series this weekend happened directly between Formula One and NASCAR.

In Qatar, the Moto GP series held its season opener and put on one of the best races I have ever seen in my life.

How much downforce do those bikes make?

Essentially none.