Daytona Victory Affirms New Perspective for Annett and Pilot Flying J Team

Ron Lemasters | 2/19/2019

Michael Annett News Pilot Flying J XFINITY Series

Saturday's victory by Michael Annett and the No. 1 team solidified what they've been saying for months - it's a new era and they're here to win.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Feb. 19 2019) – Michael Annett and Pilot Flying J, the largest operator of travel stores in the country, have been together for quite some time as driver and sponsor.

Until last Saturday, however, they’d never tasted victory together in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The ride that started with a sticker on Annett’s Late Model stock car made a stop in Victory Lane at Daytona for the third time with the Iowa native, this time in NASCAR’s second-biggest national series. Both of Annett’s victories in the ARCA Racing Series came with the company’s colors, including one at Daytona, but this triumph was something far grander and more meaningful.

It made Saturday’s trip that much sweeter for all concerned.

“We've been telling them for years, just stick with us, we're going to put the combination together,” Annett said following his victory in the No. 1 Pilot Flying J/American Heart Association Chevrolet. “It's coming, it's coming.  Stick with us, and they just keep believing and keep believing, and here we are, and this is what they deserve.  They deserve a lot more of these, and it's going to happen.”

The victory came in Annett’s 230th career NXS start, and in the first start for him driving the No. 1 that his father Harrold’s World of Outlaws sprint cars carried for so many years with the legendary Sammy Swindell.

It meant a lot to him and to Pilot Flying J, Annett said.

“Starting off with Pilot Flying J, they had a sticker on our late models about the size of the embroidery on my collar here, and they've been there from the very beginning, honestly,” he said. “They were on the hood of the car for my first win in ARCA here, and to have them stay on board and to have American Heart Association on there, which is very important to them, we're going to have it on in Atlanta, as well, to put that in Victory Lane with Pilot Flying J on the quarters, it's huge.”

As big as it is for the sponsor, it is perhaps even bigger for Annett. The one-time professional hockey player had reached a crossroads of sorts in his driving career, and it took one team with one dream and one goal to make the choice for him.

“I think I kept waiting, I guess, for a magic wand to wave over me and say, ‘hey, you're going to wake up and feel like you're the best race car driver out there today,’” Annett said following the race. “And that wasn't going to happen, and it was just taking strides and taking little goals one at a time and seeing the results...and feeling good about it and saying, ‘man, I want more of that, and I think I know how to -- I think I know the path to go there and go get some more because I enjoy this.’”

It was more than that, however. Annett said that his team—crew chief Travis Mack, car chief Jonathan Davis, mechanics Michael Ritchie and Brian Gainey and engineers Kevin Walter and Eric Long along with team owners Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller—needed to see more from him.

“Travis and Dale have talked about the guys believing in you...words are just words. It's actions, and when you start to see the actions and really feel it, that helps tremendously, and you want to reciprocate and give them the results that they deserve,” he said.

“That was the biggest thing, and just checking off every box I could to make sure that when I showed up down here, there was no doubt in everybody's mind that everybody on this team -- it's corny, but kind of our hashtag was one team, one dream, one goal, and I honestly believe everybody on this team believes in that. It's not just a saying, and we went out and proved it. It's like what Dale said, though; it's time to go show it wasn't a fluke, and I'm not worried about that. I'm excited to move forward and put a bunch more win stickers above that roof.”

If anybody understands that, it’s Earnhardt Jr. More than once in his career, he’s had to dig down, set things right and be the driver he knew he was. And Annett’s sojourn through the wilderness resonated with the 15-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver. He tried to compare the driver he hired in 2017 to the driver sitting beside him in the media center on Saturday.

“I don't know how to measure it,” he said. “I've never been a part of anything quite like it. I don't know that I can think of an instance even in the history of NASCAR that resembles it. Michael just said a second ago that he was sitting in the drivers' meeting and looking at the trophy thinking, that's coming home with me.  We're going to win it.  And I'm just thinking to myself, like that's a different Michael than the guy that came to work for us.

“I think it's just been awesome to see that transition and see him get more and more confidence, and it's been great to watch Travis (Mack) join that team and sort of gain more and more confidence from the guys around him and just really impressive for those guys to sort of transform that whole group.”

“I mean, it'll be important to sustain that success. They believe in themselves, but it'll take a lot of applying themselves throughout the year. I mean, I don't mind sitting here saying that this will work if Michael applies himself physically and mentally. This will work if the team does the same thing.  I've been with teams where I didn't feel like they believed in me, and it's not a good feeling, and a year can feel like a lifetime.”

Changing that much in such a short time frame can wear a body down, but it’s the best feeling in the world to actually make good on it, Earnhardt Jr. said.

“Michael kind of went through that, and it takes so much to sort of change that mentality, to get to where you believe in yourself and you feel that the people around you believe in you as well.  It really takes a lot of personal experiences, and it's just a very difficult process and path to go through.”

All Annett could think about when he got out of the car on Saturday—in Victory Lane—was the team behind him celebrating, and how special that was going to be. Well, that and not falling off the door sill when he emerged.

“I cut the crap out of my hand getting out,” Annett said. “About busted my butt getting out of the car. It was awesome. I keep going back, seeing the guys there and seeing how happy they were because I wanted this so bad for them. I had seen the guys in our shop come back with race wins and the hats and ringing the bell, getting their toasts in the shop, and I just -- I couldn't even look at anybody's smiling, I just looked at my guys and looked at their faces and just wanted to bring this to them, and we finally got to do it.  Hopefully get to do it a bunch more times, but just getting out of the car and seeing those guys, and a few of them have been there from the very beginning and stuck with me, and yeah, just finally get to be able to go to sleep tonight and say, ‘man, I finally did it for them and they did it for me.’”

Mack, who was with JRM during the Chase Elliott championship days and with Earnhardt Jr. at HMS in the No. 88 Chevrolet, is another team member with some ghosts to banish, and Saturday was a good start down that road.

After a somewhat less-than-optimal stint with Kasey Kahne at Leavine Family Racing, Mack was left with a doubt or two about his career.

“Yeah, I felt like that teenager that kind of ran away from home for a little bit and realized it wasn't better out there,” Mack said. “So I come back to the Hendrick family and JR Motorsports and when Dale called me and had me come in, I was super excited.  I've been on board ever since, and just the welcoming open arms back at JR Motorsports, it's like a family.  They brought me right in and they respected what I had to say and the things I was doing to work with them.

“I'm working side-by-side with those guys, I'm not standing above them dictating, telling them what to do.  I'm down there digging with them.  It's a lot of fun.”

Driver and crew chief have to communicate to be successful. Given their shared experience, it’s little wonder how the connection clicked on Saturday at Daytona. You get knocked down, the thing to do is bounce up and keep plugging, even when you think there’s no more room to fall.

That’s what it was like for Annett.

“I don't know if there was a rock bottom,” he said. “There was a bunch of really close ones. But I think last year missing the Playoffs and being with this team, this organization, knowing the equipment I was in and missing the Playoffs was just unacceptable. I was asked earlier what the spark was for this, and I think it was when that checkered flag dropped at Vegas and the Playoffs started, and we weren't in them.  I think that's what the spark probably was, to make sure something like that never happened again, and that's what started it.

“I never want to be in that position again with having the best opportunity I've ever had with the people that I'm with, the organization I'm with. I've told Dale it's not a team; it really is a family over there, and it's a fun thing to be a part of, and now I'm just glad I'm doing my part.”

This week, the teams head to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the second race of the season. Annett is eager to get it going.

“This is just the start,” he said. “I can't wait to get to Atlanta because I was nervous about Daytona and excited, but there's just so much out of your control.  Atlanta, all the hard work we've done, we're really going to be able to show off there.”

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XFINITY Series Schedule

  • March 30 01:00 PM ET
    My Bariatric Solutions 300Texas Motor Speedway
  • April 6 01:00 PM ET
    Alsco 300 at BristolBristol Motor Speedway
  • April 12 07:00 PM ET
    ToyotaCare 250Richmond Raceway
  • April 27 01:00 PM ET
    MoneyLion 300Talladega Superspeedway
  • May 4 01:30 PM ET
    Xfinity Series at DoverDover International Speedway

XFINITY Series Standings

After Production Alliance Group 300

Auto Club Speedway | 3/16/2019
RankDriverPointsBehind
1Tyler Reddick2200
2Cole Custer213-7
3Christopher Bell206-14
4Brandon Jones183-37
5Austin Cindric179-41
6Michael Annett178-42
7Justin Allgaier171-49
8Noah Gragson #161-59