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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.

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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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Justin Allgaier puts close Daytona loss, missed title behind him ahead of new Xfinity season

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Justin Allgaier doesn’t let the closest loss of his NASCAR career keep him up at night.

At least not since November.

“After Homestead, none,” Allgaier told NBC Sports on Thursday in a phone interview.

Last July, Allgaier missed out on winning the Xfinity Series’ July race at Daytona International Speedway by the slimmest of margins thanks to a delayed caution for a crash on the backstretch on the final lap.

Instead of Allgaier earning his fourth Xfinity win, it was Aric Almirola who celebrated in victory lane with his first.

“I would say I kind of carried that, even though I wasn’t supposed to or I didn’t want to, I carried it to Homestead,” Allgaier said.

The Illinois native admits lingering feelings on the loss went against the counsel of his wife, Ashley Allgaier.

“My wife is pretty good about ‘when we drive to the airplane, when you get on that airplane, whatever happened today is gone,'” the driver said. “My wife is very, very good for me in a lot of ways. She’s a very, very good at keeping things level. Not letting the highs get too high and not letting the lows too low.”

Homestead represented one of those highs.

The 30-year-old driver, despite not winning in 2016, was one of the four who raced for the Xfinity title in its first season with the elimination playoff format. Competing against his JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler and Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez of Joe Gibbs Racing, Allgaier said it was the best race he’s ever been a part of.

“The fact that it came down to end of the race and all four of us going for the (championship) were battling it out, that was just a cool day,” Allgaier said. “That whole weekend was cool.”

While Suarez won the race and title, Allgaier finished the year third in the standings, which matched his result from 2011.

Since then, Allgaier has been busy. He went to Brazil immediately following the season to compete in the Porsche GT3 Cup. He then ran in the Chili Bowl Nationals where he won a heat race and also went for a tumble.

In the middle of that, Allgaier took his wife and daughter to Walt Disney World for the first time. With 15 days until the first Xfinity Series practice at Daytona, Allgaier estimates he’s spent less than 15 days at home since the biggest race of his career.

“My mindset is actually really good,” Allgaier said. “I hate that it’s called the offseason. It should be called the non-racing season.”

Allgaier is entering his second season with JR Motorsports in the No. 7 Brandt Chevrolet and his seventh full Xfinity season since 2009. Allgaier spent his offseason in a “really good place.”

“(I) haven’t thought about the what ifs, coulda-woulda-should ofs,” Allgaier said. “I look at 2017 as a new page, new chapter. It’s just like when you go to school. You get a new page in a notebook or you get a new notebook and you’re like ‘nothing in that other notebook makes a difference. … It’s going forward and I think that’s always been the case.”

When Allgaier started his 2016 “notebook,” he didn’t know he would eventually make one Cup start, in the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway in relief of his former HScott Motorsports teammate Michael Annett. It was Allgaier’s 76th Cup start after his two seasons with HScott and four starts in 2013.

Driving the No. 46, Allgaier started 39th and finished last after getting caught up in Lap 358 crash.

If it winds up being his last Cup Start, Allgaier is “100 percent” satisfied with what he accomplished at NASCAR’s top level.

“There’s tons and tons of race car drivers who would love the opportunity to just go into the pits of a Cup series race,” Allgaier said. “I can say I’ve been able to line up against some of the best races in the world, beat some of them at times. Obviously, the last (Cup start) didn’t end the way I wanted it to end, but at the same time … I’m not disappointed at all with my Cup career as a whole. I’m just blessed to be doing what I’m doing.”

Allgaier starts his 2017 Xfinity “notebook” on Feb. 25 at Daytona.

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Jason Stockert named Xfinity crew chief for Michael Annett

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In his first Xfinity Series campaign with JR Motorsports, Michael Annett will be paired with crew chief Jason Stockert.

After three seasons in the Cup Series, Annett will drive JR Motorsport’ No. 5 Chevrolet.

Annett and Stockert have a history together. Stockert served as Annett’s engineer when he drove for Rusty Wallace in the Xfinity Series in 2011.

That year, Annett recorded seven top-10 finishes.

“That’s a huge step in our relationship,” Annett said in a press release. “We’re both pretty quiet and just say stuff when it needs to be brought up. We don’t just spit hot air just to hear ourselves talk. I think our relationship is pretty strong already and it is just going to continue to grow.”

This is will be Stockert’s first time in the role of a crew chief.

“Being my first time doing it as a crew chief, coming into an organization as structured as this is and has the speed in the cars, it was important,” Stockert said a press release. “That’s the same thing Michael wants. He wants to come in and have a car under him that he can run competitively with. We’re both here for that same interest.”

Annett will be teammates with Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier and William Byron this season. He’ll make his debut in the No. 5 car on Feb. 25 at Daytona International Speedway.

 

JR Motorsports not fielding Truck Series team this season

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After a two-year venture in the Camping World Truck Series, JR Motorsports will not field a team in the series this season.

The team made it official with a tweet on Tuesday morning.

JR Motorsports primarily fielded Cole Custer from 2015-16 in the No. 00 Chevrolet. Custer made 33 starts for the team, earning one win in 2015 at Gateway Motorsports Park. JRM also fielded Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, Jeb Burton and Kasey Kahne in one race each. Kahne gave the team its only other win, at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2015.

JRM will devote its full attention to the Xfinity Series, where it will field five cars in 2017, including full-time rides for Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and William Byron. The fifth car will feature Dale Earnhardt Jr. and other drivers.

Custer will compete in his rookie Xfinity season with Stewart-Haas Racing, which is racing in the Xfinity Series for the first time.