After breakout season, Michael Annett looks for first NASCAR win
In 2012, Michael Annett recorded his first top-five finishes, shattered his previous best in top 10s and placed higher in final points than ever before. He did so with a start-up program and an organization that had fielded a NASCAR Nationwide Series car in only one race prior to last season. Yet even amid that career year, there remained one goal the Richard Petty Motorsports driver has yet to check off his list.
“I think that’s the only thing left to do now,” Annett said. “It would just be huge, not only for the guys and myself, but also to say, ‘Hey, I belong here.’ I don’t think you could ever finish out a career without having a trophy on the mantle to prove that you did belong there.”
By any account, Annett enjoyed a breakout season in 2012, finishing fifth in points behind the primary Nationwide Series championship contenders and recording some of the best finishes of his NASCAR career. That's not bad for RPM's first attempt at a full-time Nationwide effort, particularly one put together at warp speed after Annett's previous team, Rusty Wallace Racing, shut its doors in January 2012 because of a sponsorship shortage. The paint scheme wasn't even picked out until a week before the No. 43 was loaded onto the hauler for Daytona.
All that considered, it's hard to label Annett's first venture with RPM anything but a success, particularly since it netted 17 top-10 finishes and the driver a turn on stage during the Nationwide Series banquet. Even so, just as it has throughout Annett's career in NASCAR, a victory remained noticeably absent. His last win at the national level came almost five years ago, when he beat Justin Allgaier by a quarter of a second to claim the ARCA event at Daytona.
Annett came close to snapping that skid on several tracks in 2012. He finished third in each of the second Daytona and Dover races. In almost every event during the second half of the season, he said, there was a point where his No. 43 was the fastest car on the track. He believes his best chance to win was at Kansas, when he was third on a green-white-checkered restart, but had his line jam up when Paul Menard ran out of fuel. He sees taking that next step and reaching Victory Lane as part of a progression.
"To say, 'Hey, this is how we're going to do that…', I don't know that yet," Annett said. "We talk about it in our sport so much, you've got to learn how to win to do it over again. Once we get that first one in the book, it's going to be like our streak of top-10s was. I think we'll be able to repeat it often."
It's probably the first time Annett has legitimately been able to think that big entering a season. Although his best NASCAR finish is runner-up at Kentucky in a 2008 Camping World Truck Series event, his results were wildly inconsistent as he climbed the ranks with outfits like Germain Racing and RWR. It wasn't until he landed at RPM, which gets chassis, engines and technical help from Roush Fenway Racing, that things began to level out. And even then, it took a while -- the program was thrown together quickly, and the team's only previous Nationwide effort had been a one-off for Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen.
"I think what we were able to do and what we accomplished last year was huge," said Annett, a 26-year-old from Des Moines, Iowa. "Yeah, I didn't want to see this offseason come. But we're probably going to be 10 times better than where we ended in Homestead."
The Roush connection is what attracted Annett to RPM, and what he believes made the difference in results. He and crew chief Philippe Lopez are consulting with Roush crew chief Mike Kelley -- who worked with back-to-back series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. the past two years and will oversee Trevor Bayne's program this season -- about the best places to test, so Roush-built cars can gather as much information as possible.
"That relationship is huge, and is by far probably one of the biggest things that helped us to have the success we did," Annett said. "The engineers, they're sitting down together every day of each week. Philippe and Mike Kelley have a great relationship and sit down and compare notes. After each practice, we go down to the 6 hauler and debrief, and I don't see anything changing except for it being Trevor sitting there instead of Ricky."
This offseason, Annett wants to test at a road course, which he said was a weakness last year. He wants to get in a sports car and take laps around Mid-Ohio, a new Nationwide venue for 2013, and is even thinking about booking time at a road course school. Annett is gritting his teeth through the winter, and not just because of the cold and snow in Iowa, where he spent time visiting family over the holidays. He knows how his team ended last season, he knows new cars will be ready for this coming one and he's ready to get back on the track.
"I felt like we just kept getting better as the season went on," he said. "It was kind of like, 'Man, I don't want this to end. We've got some momentum going.' The offseason is tough, because I knew where we were headed. But also, we're building about six brand-new cars. We're going to go to Daytona right where we left off. If there's ever a time where I thought we could win the championship, it's going to be (this) year."
But first, he has to turn those top-10s into trips to Victory Lane.
"The only thing that's still there is, 'Man, why haven't you won a race yet?'" Annett said. "That's the exciting part to me. Because I know when we do get that first win, we're going to take off."