Richard Petty Motorsports team still behind No. 43 driver
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Michael Annett was at the Richard Petty Motorsports shop Monday morning, taking part in the organization’s competition meetings. His No. 43 Nationwide Series car was on its way to Phoenix International Raceway, with his seat installed inside. No question, Annett was hurting after his big crash two days earlier at Daytona, but the former hockey player still showed all signs of participating this weekend on the 1-mile desert track.
“He was in pain, but he’s a tough young man,” said Sammy Johns, director of operations at RPM. “He played hockey a lot of his life, and you can’t take his toughness away from him. We were still planning on him coming here and racing. We were just working on getting the clearances we needed. Unfortunately, we ran into this.”
“This” would be the fractured and dislocated sternum Annett was diagnosed with Wednesday, which could keep him out of the car for up to two months. The 26-year-old Iowa native complained of chest pain immediately after his head-on collision with the wall last Saturday, and spent a night in a Daytona Beach hospital for observation. But it wasn’t until a Wednesday follow-up visit that the injuries were discovered, and Thursday morning Annett had surgery in which a metal plate and screws were used to repair the sternum and return it to its natural position.
The normal recovery time for such an injury is two months, said Dr. Jerry Punch, a trauma physician who also serves as a pit reporter for ESPN. But early signs are hopeful, given that Annett spent only a brief amount of time in intensive care following the surgery, is already able to gingerly walk around some, and was released from the hospital Friday afternoon.
“He’s a tough kid. He’s in great physical shape,” Punch said. “It just goes to show you -- people don’t realize what good athletes these NASCAR drivers are. For him to come out of surgery with a plate and screws in his chest, and basically just do a drive-by in the ICU, that says a lot. He’s a tough kid.”
Punch said it can take time to diagnose such an injury, which occasionally goes undiscovered following highway automobile accidents, and would heal on its own over the course of several months. In Annett’s case, a desire to speed up recovery and avoid further complications led to immediate surgery, in which the sternum was pulled back into place using a plate. The recovery time is so long because the pieces of the fractured sternum can endanger other vital internal parts in the area, such as the lungs, trachea, esophagus, aorta or even the heart -- not to mention the discomfort of being strapped into a race car with such an injury.
“Imagine if you had a broken arm and you’re trying to throw a baseball,” Punch said. “… That’s what happens when you try to use that sternum when you breathe. You’re using that fracture site whenever you’re breathing or turning or twisting or brushing your teeth.”
For RPM, the severity of Annett’s injuries came as a shock. Aric Almirola, a Sprint Cup Series driver for the team, is handling the No. 43 Nationwide car this weekend at Phoenix. Johns said Friday the organization was still working on lining up a driver as a longer-term replacement.
“We really weren’t expecting that,” Johns said of the injury. “The race car, everything was on the way out to Phoenix with Michael’s seat in it, ready for Michael to come here and race it. We really weren’t planning on this, because he was there. He was walking around the shop Monday talking to guys and everything. But every guy who drives one of these race cars is tough. It hit us unsuspected, but everybody’s done a good job out here getting everything swapped out for Aric. All of our race cars interchange real well, so the changeover was easy. But we were geared up for Michael to come out here.”
The injury was especially crushing given that Annett was coming off a breakout year in which he recorded a career-best 17 top-10 finishes, and his first top-fives on the Nationwide tour. Prior to this season, his goals were to win races and contend for the title. Now, his team can only hope to vie for the Nationwide owners’ championship, and gamble for a race victory when he returns.
“The biggest thing I’m dealing with is just the disappointment not only on Michael’s end, but everybody’s,” crew chief Philippe Lopez said. “We were on such a roll at the end of last year. I think we were the only team that didn’t want to see the season come to an end. To say that we were looking forward to this year -- everybody was. And for it to end like that … technically our season, it’s not over. But we can’t run for the driver’s championship any more. It’s not like were putting in a driver for the rest of the year. … We’re just going to try to minimize point damage, call not-too-conservative races because we’ve got nothing to lose, and really just focus on when Michael’s coming back.”
Lopez said he’s already circled Annett’s hopeful return date on the calendar, and realizes that he’s now effectively preparing for 2014. News that he’d be out of the car for so long was a difficult blow for the driver as well. “He was really down,” Lopez said. “Not hurting, just down emotionally. He was really pumped up about this season, coming off a career-best year. We all were. We’re just in shock.”
For now, RPM is focusing on the positives. Johns praised the work of Daytona’s Halifax Medical Center and NASCAR’s medical liaison team, which in the wake of the accident were also dealing with fans injured by debris from a final-lap crash that sent pieces of Kyle Larson’s car through the catchfence. With nothing to lose, the team can go for broke and chase race victories. And Annett seems to be recovering quicker than expected, getting out of the hospital in less time than doctors originally envisioned he’d spend in the ICU.
“He’s beating all the odds,” Johns said. “He’s in great shape. He’s an athlete. The guys who drive these race cars are athletes. I think that’s going to help his healing process. Of course, we’re hoping for a lot sooner, but we’re going to make sure he’s fully recovered before he gets back in a race car.”
And Annett’s name remains above the door of his yellow No. 43 car, waiting for that day when he comes back.
“His name definitely says above the door,” Johns said. “It’s Michael’s race team. It’s his race car.”
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