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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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Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

JGR teammates prank Kyle Busch with 30,000 pennies

Photo: Denny Hamlin
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. pranked Cup champion Kyle Busch by dumping 30,000 pennies on his bed as part of Truex’s payoff for losing a bet to Busch last month in New York City.

Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kevin Harvick were all together in New York City promoting their appearance in the championship race in Miami. They were riding in traffic when Busch bet he could get to the hotel quicker by jogging. The other three took him up on it.

Busch arrived ahead of them and won.

Truex owed Busch $300 for losing the bet. Hamlin helped him come up with a creative way to pay it back.

Truex said on an Hamlin’s Instagram story: “It’s going to be fun to see his reaction. He’s going to be happy that he’s getting his money, I’m just not sure he’s going to be able to carry it home with him. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Busch didn’t know about the prank until Hamlin asked if he had seen Hamlin’s Instagram story.

“Took a look … and damn it,” Busch said after the banquet.

“I guess it’s in the pillow cases and everywhere. We’ll have to figure that out (how to remove them).

Asked if Truex was still good for paying off the bet that way, Busch joked: “He might get wrecked.”

 

 

What they wore on the red carpet …

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before the show, drivers and their significant others walked the red carpet. Here’s a look at their outfits for the evening.

Kyle Busch, wife Samantha and son Brexton. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Kyle and Katelyn Larson. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Kevin and DeLana Harvick (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Clint and Lorra Bowyer. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Joey and Brittany Logano.(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Kurt and Ashley Busch. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott and Kaylie Green. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Aric and Janice Almirola. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Daniel and Kenzie Hemric. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chase Elliott wins Cup Most Popular Driver award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott was selected as the NMPA Most Popular Driver in a fan vote announced during Thursday’s NASCAR Awards show.

It is the second consecutive victory for Elliott in the category.

“Honored to have two,” Elliott said on stage. “It’s really more than a trophy or award. It is about the people you see at the race track.”

Completing the top five in balloting: Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney.

It is the 29th consecutive year that either an Elliott or Earnhardt has won the award. Bill Elliott won the award 16 times.

“To have 18 awards going back to Dawsonville is, I think, pretty cool,” Elliott said of the Most Popular Driver awards he and his father have won. “Obviously, I think a lot of that is due to him and his career and what he and his family built. It’s certainly isn’t all me and what I’ve done. I haven’t done anything … compared to what they did.”

The last driver not named Elliott or Earnhardt to win this award was Darrell Waltrip in 1990.

Other award winners included:

The Bill France Award of Excellence, an award that is not given every year, was presented to car owner Joe Gibbs for his signifiant contribution to the sport.

The NMPA Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contribution to the sport was presented to Darrell Waltrip.

The Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award is Joe Vaughn, who has volunteered for nearly two decades, raising both awareness and funds on behalf of the Project HOPE Foundation, based in Greenville, South Carolina. The foundation’s mission is to provide a lifespan of services to the autism community to help families, open minds, promote inclusion and expand potential.