Saturday, July 14, 2012

Michael Annett: Driving for The King

Photo courtesy of Richard Petty Motorsports/Phil Cavali 

The No. 43 car is synonymous with Richard Petty Motorsports and Richard Petty's reign in Cup competition. This season, young Michael Annett brings the iconic number to a new venue, the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Petty's first serious foray into that series since 1996.

Annett was born to race. He attended his very first race soon after his birth; from there racing was his destiny despite detours in his career path. Annett's family's business owned and sponsored sprint car legend Sammy Swindell in the World of Outlaw Series for years, but by the time Annett was growing up, they were burned out.

“When my family got out of racing, it wasn't my choice,” Annett said as we spoke on Friday morning prior to practice. "My dad decided that he was done putting money into the sport and was just burnt out on it. He was done. I was left wondering...I spent the first part of my life at the race track and thought that was what I was going to do.”

All that changed when Annett joined some friends playing ice hockey after school. Although he continued down the path of a hockey career until he was about 18, Annett said his parents could tell that racing was what he loved and was destined for.

“I kept chirping in their ear and picking at them, saying 'let's go buy a go-kart or let's go do mini sprints' and it was something my dad knew he wanted to get back into, but had to talk my mom into.” Finally mom warmed to the idea, and the rest is history!

Now Annett is part of history-in-the-making with RPM.

"Obviously being with Rusty Wallace Racing last year was a huge opportunity. When things fell apart there, I had about a month before Daytona...I had a two year contract with Rusty and I hadn't even thought about going anywhere else. A month before Daytona I didn't have a job and was wondering what I was going to do. I am fortunate enough to have the partners I do with Pilot/Flying J and that opens a lot of doors to get into meetings. We went and sat down with Richard and the guys over at RPM and was just blown away at some of the things they said. Their mentality of how a race team should be run; how it is much more of a family business then anything; they do not have sponsors, it is partners and there was a lot of things we saw eye-to-eye on. I knew about halfway through the meeting and was definite by the time I walked out the door that was the organization I wanted to be with. Getting close to halfway through the season, I realize I definitely made the right choice!”

With the new ride comes the mentoring of "The King," the driver who has held the record for most wins for over two decades and is tied for most titles in NASCAR. Though Petty is unable to be at the shop as much as he may like due to wife Lynda's declining health, he is ever-present at the race track.

“As far as his presence, his giving you a pat on the back and the confidence he can give you in a few words, it puts a smile on your face and you realize that he is there for you,” Annett said on his relationship with Petty. “He has a lot of other things he could be doing right now with everything he has done for our sport. He doesn’t have to be here on the weekends, but he just keeps giving back. To see the amount of effort and focus he has put on our Nationwide team is pretty cool, it is an honor to drive for him.”

Photo courtesy of Richard Petty Motorsports/Phil Cavali 
After his fourth-place finish at Kentucky, Annett said in his post-race interview that it was so cool that The King was the first one in his window to congratulate him on his career-best finish. “It’s all surreal at the time,” Annett said. “When you go back and look at pictures of stuff like that, the best part was just seeing the look on his face and how happy he was. Sure enough at Daytona, (Annett’s new career-best finish of 3rd place) I think he was watching the race lying in bed and when he saw how well we did, he threw on some clothes and ran out to pit road. It’s just really cool to see how much it means to him and how much he really does care.”

Speaking about his recent success, Annett said that there have been no changes but said “hitting our stride is a good way to put it.” Noting that he has always favored Kentucky, he also said the RPM alliance with Roush Fenway was helpful due to their success at Kentucky.

Putting the right team in place was also an important key to the team’s success this season. The foundation of that team is crew chief Philippe Lopez, a 16-year veteran atop the pit box. Annett said of Lopez, “Confidence is huge and that is one thing with Philippe, he has a ton of it. You can hear it on the radio, he does not hesitate, and you will hear a lot of crew chiefs hem-haw and go back and forth but when he makes up his mind that is what we are doing!"

After putting all the parts and pieces together, Annett’s finish at Daytona qualified him for the first round of the Dash 4 Cash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend. Which means $100,000 on the line and added pressure…or so you would think.

“It’s one of my favorite race tracks,” Annett said on New Hampshire racing. “I’ve told people that yes, it is a Dash 4 Cash race but I am more looking forward to continuing this momentum we have going with two top fives in a row. The biggest thing for us is that we need to keep doing what we have been doing the past few weeks, go into the race not even thinking about the Dash 4 Cash , thinking about top five and where we finished the past two weeks. I just want to focus on improving, that is what I am focused on. If we do our job like we know we can and we continue to run like we have, the Dash 4 Cash will take care of itself.”

Annett qualified for today's F.W. Webb 200 at NHMS in 14th position.

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