Based off opening practice for the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday’s (Feb. 16) race looked like it was going to be a thriller.
But once the green flag flew, it was far from action packed.
After going single file through the first two stages, it was expected the final stage would be door-to-door, bumper-to-bumper racing. That was far from the case. Once Michael Annett got to the lead with 44 laps to go, he had one block to make, which came going into Turn 3 on the final lap.
Annett made the block and went on to win his first-career NASCAR race, getting redemption on a terrible 2018 season.
“People say I shouldn’t have been in the car the past couple years, I earned that criticism and put that on myself,” Annett said. “I put everything into this team, this car and this upcoming season over the offseason just to make sure there were no variables that we could control and didn’t.”
Though the race was relatively a snooze fest, the win for Annett is huge.
Think back to 2018. Annett missed out on the playoffs, while his JRM teammates dominated much of the season. Allgaier won five races. Tyler Reddick, who’s now driving for Richard Childress Racing, bookended the campaign with victories and the championship. Meanwhile, Elliott Sadler drove off into the sunset on his NASCAR career among the top five in points for the entire season.
Annett, on the other hand, didn’t post a single top-five finish during the 33-race schedule, with just three top-10 finishes. He admitted the season was a miss.
“It was the little things that I kept waiting for a magic wand to wave over me and be like, ‘hey, you’re the best racecar driver out there,’ and that wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “It was taking strides and little goals one at a time and seeing the results, feeling good about it.
“Words are just words, but when you start to see the actions, you can really feel it. That was the biggest thing, checking off each box I could so when I showed up down here, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind.”
Annett admitted that missing out on the playoffs was one of the tougher things he’s gone through with one of the best organizations in the series. Hell, it may have even of been rock bottom, despite being dropped from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with both Tommy Baldwin Racing and HScott Motorsports.
“There was a bunch of really close ones,” he said. “I think last year missing the playoffs with this team and organization, knowing the equipment I was in was unacceptable. The spark was the checkered flag dropped at [Las] Vegas [Motor Speedway] and we weren’t in the playoffs, to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
“I never want to be in that position again with the best opportunity I’ve ever had, with the people I’m with, the organization I’m with. I told Dale [Earnhardt Jr., owner], it’s not a team, it’s a family over there. It’s a fun thing to be a part of, and I’m glad I’m doing my part.”
Prior to Daytona, Annett’s best finish in the Xfinity Series was a second at Road America in 2017. His 45 laps led were more than his last four Xfinity seasons combined.
Dating back to last weekend, Brad Keselowski has not had a very good Speedweeks. That continued in the Xfinity race.
Keselowski qualified the No. 12 car in ninth but from the drop of the green flag had an issue with his roof hatch. The roof hatch is typically run in superspeedway races for drivers’ safety.
The team left Keselowski on the track until the stage break on lap 30, when he received a penalty for pitting early. But as the team continued to work on bolting in the roof hatch, he lost a lap attempting to zip tie it to the roll cage from the cockpit.
It took until the second stage break on lap 60 for Keselowski to get his lap back, but his race went awry on lap 71 when NASCAR threw the caution for the roof hatch actually coming off his No. 12 onto the frontstretch grass.
The 2010 series champion brought the No. 12 car behind the wall and retired from the race, finishing 49 laps down in 39th.
“The roof, escape hatch, whatever it is called… looks like there was a defect from the factory on the body and just nothing we could do,” he said. “The guys tried to fix it, but it is in a spot where you can’t get to it and work on it. It is one of those things outside your control, and sometimes that is just how things go.”
In 15 career Xfinity starts at Daytona, Keselowski has never taken a victory. Team Penske’s record is even worse at the World Center of Racing, going winless in 29 starts.
Much like most of Speedweeks, the Xfinity race was single file, riding around the top, and it wasn’t fun to watch. But what’s the deal?
Unfortunately, many drivers don’t know why and thought there would have been a better race.
“I expected after yesterday’s practice and what we seen, I really thought the race was going to be predominantly on the bottom,” Allgaier said. “When we took off for the green and everybody took off to the top, I thought, ‘what’s happening?’ I even asked the spotter, ‘what’s happening, why are we running the top?’
“I think the hardest part about today was it was so hard to generate runs when the cars in front of you were so even on speed that it’s just unfortunate.”
Instead of trying to maneuver through the field, drivers were protective the top line so they wouldn’t get shuffled to the back.
“We just couldn’t really get a run going,” Custer said. “I had to stay protective on the top where everybody else was to keep momentum but we couldn’t get anybody to work with us. I thought the race would play out different.”
Unlike the Gander Outdoors Truck Series race on Friday night, there was no carnage, which is good for the team owners. But there was no action. None at all. I could argue this was the worst Xfinity race ever.
Underdog Performance of the Race
Even though there wasn’t much action, the small teams still came to play, and RSS Racing soared to the front, picking up a pair of top 10s with Ryan Sieg and Jeff Green.
Sieg surprised many by qualifying eighth, finishing among the top five in the opening round of qualifying. Green, on the other hand, was mired back in 21st.
When the green flag dropped, Sieg stayed in the top 10, finishing seventh, picking up four stage points. Green was stuck in the mid-20s. In the second stage, the No. 39 car finished 11th, while Green began to make his way through the field in 20th.
Following the second stage, both the Nos. 39 and 93 teams had good pit stops, where they would remain in the top 10 for the remainder of the race. Sieg scored his first top-five finish (fourth) since 2017 at Iowa Speedway. Green scored his first top 10 since Talladega Superspeedway in 2017.
Both drivers were thrilled with their respective races.
“Just played it safe at first,” Green said. “The way the race played out up on the high side like that, it played in everyone’s favor of not being in those wrecks. It was pretty sane today and the car was good enough to run there.”
“It’s spectacular for our little team out to come out with two top 10s at Daytona,” Sieg said. “It’s always good to run good to kickoff the season. It does build confidence and you can show that you can run in the top 10. We’ll see how we stack up next week, but we should be pretty good.”
In 302 career Xfinity starts, this is the first time RSS Racing had two cars finish inside the top 10.
Double Duty Interlopers
Whenever Keselowski runs in an Xfinity race, he will be one of the favorites. However, his aforementioned struggled routed him to 39th.
Other double duty drivers in the field include Chase Elliott, who was one of the few drivers trying to make moves throughout the ran and not run in a single file line against the wall. He brought the No. 8 car home 10th.
Late in the race, Ross Chastain attempted to make a move for fourth but when he didn’t get help, the No. 10 car fell to 13th. He will make his first start in the Great American Race on Sunday (Feb. 17). BJ McLeod, the final driver pulling double duty, took the checkered flag in 27th.
“You could just tell everybody was so scared to get out of line there and then lose the pack.” – Brandon Jones
“You expect overtime at the end but like I said, with the cars that you would expect to be up front that weren’t up front at the end, you didn’t have enough help to generate anxious runs.” – Austin Cindric
“I tried to just go low, but nobody else went, so I didn’t have a car to tow off of. That was that.” – Christopher Bell
The Xfinity season opener was not a good race; in fact, probably one of the most boring races at Daytona in recent memory. No sugarcoating there.
Interestingly enough, opening practice on Friday was the total opposite. Drivers were racing and racing hard in the draft. Surprisingly, drivers don’t seem to have many answers on how to fix the current package.
Luckily (or maybe not), the aerodynamic package will be completely different heading to Talladega in April as restrictor plates will be no more.
The Xfinity Series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway next Saturday (Feb. 23) for the second race of the season. In 2018, Kevin Harvick dominated the event, leading 141 of 163 laps. A pair of series regulars, Bell and John Hunter Nemechek, finished inside the top five.