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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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NASCAR Penalty report from Michigan

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The NASCAR penalty report from Michigan International Speedway has been released.

It includes two fines for unsecured lug nuts. Chad Knaus, crew chief for William Byron‘s No. 24 Chevrolet, and Chris Gabehart, crew chief on Denny Hamlin‘s No. 11 Toyota, have each been fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut during the course of the weekend.

The report also includes the penalties issued Saturday to Roush Fenway Racing for the improper spoilers used on both Ryan Newman and Chris Buescher‘s cars.

Brendan Gaughan set for Daytona road course after COVID-19 recovery

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On July 15, part-time Cup Series driver Brendan Gaughan became the second NASCAR driver to announce he’d tested positive for COVID-19.

After quarantining for two weeks and testing negative for COVID-19 twice more than 24 hours apart, Gaughan has been medically cleared to go racing again.

And he won’t even have to wait until the Cup Series regular-season finale on Aug. 29 to do it.

Originally scheduled to only compete in the season’s four superspeedway races with Beard Motorsports, Gaughan will suit up to drive the No. 62 Chevrolet in Sunday’s race on the Daytona road course (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

He joins Jimmie Johnson in having tested positive for COVID-19 and returned to race. While Gaughan last competed in the June 22 race at Talladega, Johnson only missed the Brickyard 400 before returning to the track.

“I feel fantastic,” Gaughan said in a press release. “I’m finally out of the house. The toughest part of the whole ordeal was the mental aspect. I truly feel for people who struggle with depression and have to deal with COVID-19, because this thing is tough. You literally get stuck in a location by yourself. Fortunately for me, I had my puppy. I missed my two children tremendously. But it’s amazing now because we live in the age of the Jetsons that we can pick up a phone and look at their faces.”

To get clearance to race, Gaughan tested twice for COVID-19 in more than 24 hours and also had to get a doctor’s note saying he was good to go.

“That was it,” Gaughan said. “As long as I’m negative, they are good with it. They still have their protocols in place, so when we get to the track we are all still separated. The drivers don’t get to mingle with the teams right now. NASCAR has done a phenomenal job with it and they have been able to stay open for business while having very, very minor effects from this.”

While he was originally just going to race at Talladega and the Daytona oval, Gaughan says this weekend’s road course race “technically counts.”

“We said all of the Daytona races,” Gaughan said. “What happened is that as soon as it got added to the schedule immediately my mind went, ‘Wow, I would love to race the Daytona road course.’ There’s very few of us Cup drivers that have experience on that race course. And with no practice and no qualifying, that gives about 10 of us a very large advantage over the field.”

Brendan Gaughan
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Gaughan competed on the road course and earned a class victory in the 2011 Rolex 24 at Daytona, with his team beating second place by a full lap. He’s ran in the Rolex 24 twice since, finishing third in 2016 in the Prototype Challenge class and 14th in 2018 in the Prototype division.

“I was immediately enticed by it,” Gaughan said of the road course race. “Then you know how much I always speak so highly of Richard Childress Racing. Richard called and said, ‘Hey, come on man, you know you want to do it,’ and I kind of chuckled because everyone knows I love my road racing. I talked to the Beard family and said, ‘Hey, you want to add a race to the schedule?’ It wasn’t in the budget. It wasn’t planned originally, but the Beards were on board.

“They are in the same boat as me. This is a retirement year like me and they are having the same fun I am. They went, ‘Ooohh, we can do well there.’ So we called Richard up and he built me a brand new Beard Oil Distributing/South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet Camaro from RCR that we were able to rent for Beard Motorsports to go race.”

Gaughan, who will start last in the race due his lack of owner points, dissected how different it will be navigating the road course in Cup compared to the sports car he drove the last time he raced on it.

“I need to remember that the last time I raced there in an LMP car, I could lift at the ‘1’ sign going into the chicane on the back straightaway,” Gaughan said. “Now if I lift at the ‘1’ in a Cup car, I will end up at the airport. So I need to remember that I’m going to need a little more braking zone room. But you basically already know the line and you know where you want to be. You know the feel of the place.

“You know where some passing zones are. You kind of know how to run that race, which is the big advantage that comes with it. Having a car built from Richard Childress means that I don’t have to worry that it’s going to have parts and pieces that aren’t any good. And I still have Darren Shaw, my crew chief, who I’ve been working with at Beard Motorsports. We’ve still got our guys working it and our guys doing it, so I kind of have the best of all worlds here. And there is an advantage for people that have been there. I also gave myself a little bit of an insurance policy. I offered to sponsor Andy Lally in the Xfinity race. To me, Andy Lally is the premier sports-car racer in America.

“I don’t think anybody can argue that there is anybody better than Andy Lally. So, I offered to sponsor Andy because he’s racing Saturday. I told him he has to stay over Sunday and do some driver coaching and give me his notes. Not only do I have experience on the track, I will have notes from a stock car on the track from the day before.”

Christopher Bell: ‘Pretty scared’ about future before re-joining JGR

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Early last week, Christopher Bell was “pretty scared” about his NASCAR future after Leavine Family Racing, the Toyota-backed team the rookie driver competes for in the Cup Series, announced it would sell its assets to Spire Motorsports.

That left Bell’s relationship with Toyota, the manufacturer that’s been the “centerpiece” of his racing career since 2013 and 2015 in NASCAR, up in the air.

“I’ve said it time and time again, but Toyota has been my – they’re the ones that got me here,” Bell said Tuesday in a press conference. “They’re the ones that took me from dirt track racing to pavement racing to Truck (Series) racing to Xfinity racing and then obviously made this deal happen with LFR too. At the time, it’s either the 20 car (at Joe Gibbs Racing) or I’m done with Toyota. There’s no other options. It was very scary. I didn’t want that to end.”

Bell acknowledged that despite his 2017 Truck Series title, his seven Truck wins and 16 Xfinity wins, a lack of sponsorship backing didn’t make him the most valuable hire for another team.

“The sponsorship piece is a huge part of it,” Bell said. “It’s no secret, you have to have sponsors in order to succeed in this sport and I’ve been really fortunate to have Rheem with me for the last couple of years. If I get pushed out of the Toyota group, I don’t really have much to say, ‘hire me.’”

Bell said, “I knew that once LFR shut down, there was only one place for me to go and the 20 car has obviously got a great driver in there right now.”

That driver was Erik Jones, who has been with Joe Gibbs Racing in Cup full-time since 2018 and been a Toyota driver in NASCAR since 2013 in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

“‘How is that going to work?'” Bell asked himself. “‘How am I going to be able to go to JGR whenever they’re full?’ Unfortunately my homecoming so to speak was at the expense of another driver.”

Two days after LFR’s announcement, Joe Gibbs Racing revealed Jones would not return to the team in 2021, a move that “blindsided” Jones.

On Monday, JGR announced Bell’s ascent up the ranks would finally land him in the No. 20 next season.

“It was very, I mean, uncomfortable is a good way to put it,” Bell said. “I don’t think any of us – myself, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota – none of us expected the whole LFR deal to go down like it did, so I think that put everybody in a little bit of a box. … I’m extremely grateful that I get to continue that relationship and that I get to continue to drive Camrys on Sundays and race with TRD for hopefully a long time to come.”

How does Bell see his relationship with Jones playing out over the final 14 races of the season?

“As far as me versus him, that situation is already done, so I don’t know how he’s going to race me going forward,” Bell said. “I’m going to be cheering for Erik, just as everybody is at Joe Gibbs Racing, just hoping that he gets a nice solid deal and lands on his feet. I’ll be cheering for him and trying to race him with as much respect as I can, just like every other competitor. I hope he performs well, and obviously, the better he performs now in the 20 car, the better off I’ll be at the start of the year with the owner points standings. It’s really important that he does well this year in the 20 car for my future next year as well.”

Bell observed that it’s “absolutely crazy” to look back at his career path, which began in UASC Midgets and has led to him driving a “house” Toyota Cup car at JGR next year.

Going into 2021, Bell said he still has a “great relationship” with the people at JGR from his time there in the Xfinity Series.

“Whenever I was on the Xfinity side, I still got to mingle and interact with the Cup shop a little bit, so I have a rough idea how everything operates there,” Bell said. “I got in a little bit deeper with the LFR deal, and having that technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, but it’s going to be very nice to be able to go back home.”

Spire Motorsports confirms purchase of Leavine Family Racing

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Spire Motorsports confirmed Tuesday that it will acquire the assets from Leavine Family Racing upon the completion of the 2020 season. Spire Motorsports also will expand to a two-car team in the Cup Series in 2021.

The purchase will include LFR’s charter, the team’s race shop near Charlotte Motor Speedway and all of its owned inventory. LFR’s fleet of cars and chassis will be returned to Joe Gibbs Racing.

Spire, which began competing in 2019 after it purchased Furniture Row Motorsports’ charter, fields the No. 77 Chevrolet. It has made 58 starts for more than a dozen drivers since last year, including an upset win in the July 2019 race at Daytona with Justin Haley behind the wheel.

The team is co-owned by Jeff Dickerson and Thaddeus “T.J.” Puchyr.

“This is an exciting moment for Spire as we take the natural next step in our long-term plan to build our race team and prepare for the Next Gen car in 2022,” said Dickerson in a press release. “Bob Leavine invested more than money into LFR and this industry. He built a team brick-by-brick and we have long admired how he took his own steps in the garage. He also did it with his family at his side. We won’t let that be lost in this transaction. When you build something with your family, it always means a little bit more. His ability to connect with fans was genuine and we are thankful he chose us to carry this team forward.

“These are no doubt trying times, but I have never been prouder to be part of this sport. NASCAR has managed several difficult situations this spring and into the summer. We believe in the ownership model that NASCAR has built and where this sport is going now more than ever.”

The team said details about drivers and manufacturers for 2021 will come later.