The Frontstretch: Michael Annett on the Sophomore Slump and the Challenges of a Single-Car Team by Bryan Davis Keith -- Thursday November 18, 2010

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Michael Annett hit big-time stock car racing with a splash back in 2007, winning an ARCA race at Talladega and following that up with another ARCA trophy at Daytona in the following season-opener. Though Annett and sponsor Pilot Travel Centers have not returned to victory lane since, the former hockey player has spent the past two seasons acclimating to life in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and continuing his driver development. It’s been a bit of a sophomore slump for the Germain Racing driver, but with sponsorship returning, Annett is raring to go for another year in NASCAR’s AAA ranks. Frontstretch caught up with Annett earlier this month.

Keith: With only a few races to go, how would you rate your second season in the Nationwide ranks?

Annett: It’s been disappointing. We had a lot better results last year, and we finished 10th in points. So we went into this year thinking we got all the rookie stuff out of it, we’re going to continuously run better. This year I’d say our cars are better and I’d say I’m better as a driver, but this year in the Nationwide Series is just incredible, the competition we’ve had. It’s been a breakout season for a couple of rookies. Justin Allgaier, he was last year’s top rookie, he’s getting better and better every week and his cars are running really well. I don’t think we’ve backed up as a team, I think everyone else has gotten a ton better, while we got maybe a lot better. It’s been tough and it’s been disappointing, but it hasn’t been for a lack of effort. I think our cars and myself are better.

Keith: It has been tougher this year. Roush brought in two new teams, Brad came in with his new team. It is tougher out there. Where did you all fall short, where did they get ahead of you?

Annett: I don’t know. We don’t have a ton of funding for our team, and a lot of teams in the offseason and throughout the year were able to build new lightweight cars. We’ve had the opportunity to build one new car that wasn’t a COT. The more money you have, the more things you have at your fingertips; the ability to go to the wind tunnel more often, to go to the seven-post, to build new cars. That’s something we were able to do a little bit, but it’d be nice if we could go to the wind tunnel or the seven-post rig four times a week. Other teams were able to capitalize on that more than we were able to. It’s stuff like that. It’s so hard to gain a tenth during the week. Once you get to the track everyone’s even keel when it comes to how much they can improve, but it’s during the week that you’re able to gain that tenth. And that’s hard right now, considering how competitive the series is.

Keith: Talking about funding, everyone had to face the transition to the COT this year. It was expensive. For you guys, how much in terms of resources did it cost you to build those cars?

Annett: It definitely was an impact. But COT wise, I think we’re ahead of teams with similar budgets. Most teams ran the same COT car at all four races, but we were able to build a speedway COT car for Daytona, and we had a car for all the other tracks. I was really happy with our COT car to be honest, I thought we were a top 10 COT car every race this year. Of course, building brand new stuff is going to take up resources that last year we may have been able to put towards the car of today. But in general, I was really happy with our COT program.

Keith: How does having a Cup team impact the organization?

Annett: It definitely didn’t hurt at all, though if there is anything Germain Racing had I wish they had another Nationwide Series team. What do other teams have? Everyone ahead of us in the garage has a teammate. Today we had 2.5 hours of practice in the garage and, if you correlate us getting everything we can out of practice with other teams sharing notes, we only have our own notes. Our Cup program has gotten better over the season, and we can learn a little bit from that, especially on the COT side. But there’s not a lot we can translate over to the cars we’re running today. And the Truck side, I wish the Truck Series raced with us every weekend so Todd Bodine could be here. He’s always on my radio. There may not be a lot we can learn chassis-wise [from the Trucks] but to have both the Hillmans here, to have Todd here, is a big help.

Keith: You’re driving for a single car team as a development driver. What do you do to deal with that?

Annett: One of the biggest things for us has been the Dartfish program. I can come up here and put our lap against the lap of the guy on top of the chart, see where they’re beating us. Then I can go ask the spotter to relay what he’s seeing. Then I can go to the guys in the garage that I trust, that won’t lead you the wrong way, see what they’re thinking. To be honest with you, most of them would rather be beaten by the best competition than winning by providing false information. Things like that make it tougher, but I learned a lot from last year. Last year I really kept to myself, I didn’t talk to a lot of drivers. This year, I’ve changed that a lot. The biggest thing I can do is relay what I and my crew chief sees around, where we’re getting beat.

Keith: You came in from the ARCA Series. That Series has a rep for an open garage, everyone will give you advice. Is that environment comparable in the NNS ranks?

Annett: It is, especially among the Nationwide only guys. The Cup guys, they get done over here and they run over to the Cup garage, so you never have a chance to go up to them and ask for information. But you can always go up to the Turner guys, there’s so many of them, and they know how hard it is for us to run in the top 5 in this series against Cup affiliated teams. A Nationwide only team, they want to help you. They’d rather have all Nationwide guys running top 5.

Keith: Talk about that dynamic in the garage.

Annett: Personally I like it. I’d rather be racing against them on Saturday learning from them rather than being under the spotlight as a rookie in the Cup Series. If you were to come out of the Nationwide Series thinking you have a handle on it then suddenly you’re racing against 42 of the best in the Cup Series, I’d rather have the eye-opener now and learn from them. Kyle Busch, there’s so many guys in the Chase that are running every week with us, you’re racing against the best every week. I’d rather learn now than get the eye-opener on Sunday. Plus, when you beat them, it’s an even better feeling, a better reward, over the weekend. I remember last year, when they’d hand out the award for highest finishing Nationwide driver, how that was always an award we really wanted to take home. The Nationwide guys are going to help either other a lot, and we also really want to be the best Nationwide guy. That was an award we always shot for every week.

Keith: Toyota is building a presence in this Series. What is that manufacturer doing right? As a driver, what are they doing that benefits you?

Annett: I think the facility they’ve built in Salisbury, NC has been a huge help. We were talking earlier about what you can learn during the week. They provide so much knowledge and support from that facility through the week and into the weekend, even when we get to the track, we get notes as to what every Toyota team, apart from Gibbs, has in their race cars. We know what setup they have. Being a team like ours that doesn’t have a teammate, that’s just more information we have.

Keith: What’s the plan for next year?

Annett: I don’t know. I’m definitely going to be in the Nationwide Series. I’m not going to jump up anywhere until I’ve had a lot of success at the level that I’m at. We’re not for sure yet what team we’re going to be with yet, but it will for sure be in the Nationwide Series and hopefully…they say you always have the sophomore slump, we hope that next year we’ll be running consistently towards the top 10 and hopefully the top 5.

Keith: How is your relationship with Pilot? They’ve been with you for a while now.

Annett: Pilot has been with me since I started at 18 in ASA late models. It’s a relationship we’ve built over the years and I’m real good friends with the people there. They’ve said if they’re going to be racing, they want it to be with someone they enjoy being around. The first time we were really in the spotlight was in ARCA, but they fortunately understand how tough the Nationwide Series is. They still enjoy coming to the track, and they’re waiting for the same success we are.

Keith: So they’re coming back next year?

Annett: Yeah definitely. Pilot’s going to be back, and hopefully a few others will come on over the offseason.

Keith: Being a Nationwide regular, the TV time isn’t always there. When that spotlight is elsewhere, what do you bring to the table for a sponsor? What do you have to sell to them?

Annett: The biggest thing is explaining, like I was saying, how good it does make you feel after a weekend that you run well. They’re going to have to understand what we’re racing against. I can’t go out there and tell them we’re going to be in the top 10 every weekend. But when we do, people are going to take notice and we might get a few weeks of TV time for that. They understand, and there’s a lot of companies that like being with the underdog. Sure, everyone likes to be on TV and having their products shown, but every company started small at some point. They like to be part of growing something.

Keith: You following hockey at all?

Annett: I usually don’t get into it until playoff time, and then I’ll start watching it. When I quit hockey, I quit cold turkey just like someone quitting smoking. If I start paying attention to it, I’ll start focusing on other things.

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