Just over two years ago, Michael Annett was struggling at JR Motorsports, putting together a self-admittedly lackluster season. That followed a disappointing 2017 campaign, squeaking into the postseason.
After returning to the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2017, Annett had first-year crew chief Jason Stockert leading the way. Scoring just seven top-10 finishes in their first 52 races together, it was time for a change, and the Iowa native was looking for a new leader atop the pit box – all while not discrediting Stockert and noting he’s one of the smartest people at JRM.
Annett proclaims himself as a “Chili’s guy.” So while looking for a new crew chief, L.W. Miller, director of motorsports at JRM, texted Annett and his potential crew chief about meeting up for lunch one afternoon in July, 2018. Annett stated, it had to be Chili’s in Mooresville, North Carolina.
That potential crew chief was Travis Mack, who had joined Leavine Family Racing prior to the 2018 season beginning at Daytona International Speedway. He guided Kasey Kahne after the driver made the jump from Hendrick Motorsports. Mack only lasted 15 races with the No. 95 team, describing that time as “very frustrating.”
Both parties needed a change. Mack had previously worked with team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., serving as his car chief at Hendrick Motorsports, while also being the interim crew chief on the No. 88 Chevrolet for two races during the 2017 season.
But Annett and Mack didn’t know each other. At all.
“I never even heard his name,” Annett recently told Frontstretch. “I’m not a big social media guy, so I really didn’t know anything about him being the crew chief on the [No.] 95 car. I didn’t know a whole lot, but L.W., Kelley [Earnhardt-Miller, co-owner of JRM], Dale Jr. and Ryan Pemberton (director of competition at JRM), believe in me. They were so high on Travis, especially Junior, and that’s all I needed to hear.
“That led to that lunch, and I made a phone call walking out of that restaurant and said, ‘I’m all on board, this is our guy.’”
Mack, too, didn’t know much about Annett prior to meeting him for lunch.
“I didn’t even know what he looked like until the first time we had lunch,” Mack said. “I had no idea of anything about him. I knew about him being in the racecar and just being at JR Motorsports and seeing him on the track, but I really did not know him at all.”
Prior to Mack hopping on as crew chief, Annett was struggling in the 2018 season, failing to score a top-10 finish in the opening 19 races of the season. On July 30, Mack was introduced as the new crew chief, but the series was heading to Watkins Glen International and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in their first races together, two road courses at which the driver had struggled previously.
Annett didn’t achieve a top 10 at either WGI or Mid-Ohio, but come the third race out at Bristol Motor Speedway, he was competitive, taking the checkered flag in seventh position. Two races later at Darlington Raceway, he had another top 10 in the books before going another eight races without. Then in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he finished ninth, ending the season on a good note.
But one of Mack’s goals was to get Annett’s head above water entering the 2019 season.
“His confidence level was pretty low,” Mack recalls. “I wasn’t going to tell him how to drive the racecar every single week. I was going to let him do it. He’s been a racecar driver for a long time. If he trusted me with the car, then I would trust him to drive the car.”
Annett admits his head was in a bad spot after two rough seasons with one of the Xfinity Series’ biggest teams.
“It had really been beaten down,” Annett said of his confidence. “There’s a lot of looking in the mirror of, ‘Maybe it’s me.’ We hear a lot of that in our sport, but you also know you didn’t forget what you’re doing, and you know what it feels like when you’re around the person you’re talking to is understanding and comprehending it.
“I tell everyone I’m probably the dumbest guy in our shop, but I can drive a racecar, and I know what I want to feel. I don’t know what to put in the car to do that, but having someone that understands your language, your number scale of how good something is, how bad it is, and going from there.”
Mack was the guy that could understand Annett. Their relationship led to a breakout 2019 season, the first full year together working as a driver/crew chief. That season also included Annett’s first career victory in his 229th career start, coming in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. 2019 started off the right way.
During the season, though, Mack needed to gain Annett’s trust. The Louisville native would make some bold calls atop the pit box, attempting to give the No. 1 team track position. There were instances such as the first round of the playoffs at Richmond Raceway, when a caution came out late in the opening stage and Mack called his driver to pit road, opting to put Annett on offense over the final laps of the stage. The No. 1 car raced from deep in the field to fourth over the final handful of laps in the stage.
“There was a couple instances where he didn’t trust me and he doubted our pit strategy and our call. But after Richmond he said he would never doubt me again,” Mack stated. “I just tell him we’re going to try something. I talk to him about some strategy that might play out during the race before the race and he’s up for whatever.
“He likes being on the offensive. Sometimes, I put him out front on old tires and ask him to hang on. In the end, he trusts me. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but we’re going to try to win races.”
Annett says having the win at Daytona in the bag to fall back on allowed the No. 1 team to make some of those bold decisions.
“Last year, a couple times when we did it, it’s like, ‘Alright, we’ve got that win at Daytona, we’re trying to get stage wins to get playoff points,’” Annett said. “I was all on board and it seemed like last year it paid off. Him making some of those calls, it’s like, ‘Man, I’d really like to take these four or five stage points and get a decent day out of this,’ and he tries setting up stage wins and you might be behind the eight ball for the next stage. He’s got my 100% trust. I agree with everything he calls because I know it’s calculated and methodical.”
Annett admits that the Richmond strategy in the playoffs was “huge.” But also being on offense, he isn’t a “sacrificial lamb” and has a fighting chance on fresh rubber.
Over the course of the 2019 season, Annett piled up a career-high 19 top-10 finishes while leading 94 laps. He also tied a career-best six top-five efforts. The No. 1 team got to the Round of 8 in the postseason, though missing out on a shot at the championship come Homestead.
Aside from winning the title, Annett accomplished the mission of getting his confidence back with Mack leading the charge. From Annett’s standpoint, Mack reminds him of working with Phillippe Lopez at Richard Petty Motorsports (2012 and 2013) and Rudy Fugle at Germain Racing (2009 and 2010).
“Him expressing how much he wanted to be the one to right the ship and turn my career around and get that [No.] 1 car turned around – hearing him and his confidence, instilled it in myself,” Annett said of Mack. “His attitude doesn’t bleed off into myself, it bleeds around the whole race team, around the whole shop. No one believes in us more than he does.”
Meanwhile, Mack has seen great growth in Annett from both a personal and professional standpoint.
“I think now he’s a little more outgoing and more involved with [the] team,” Mack said. “He’s a good guy with a huge heart. Just his health, endurance and strength: everything on that end of it, his body has gotten a lot better. In return, it’s affected him in the racecar and made him better.
“He’s really come a long way. He dug deep and realized what he needed to do as a driver to get better and he works really hard on himself. He’s constantly trying to improve. It’s not like he’s come to a point in his career where he’s just going to lay over.”
Now, having two full calendar years under their belt together as driver/crew chief, Annett doesn’t know how it could have gone any better.
“It’s been really good,” he said. “Travis is quick to think about how to make our race team better, from the car to how we approach the weekend: everyone’s mindset throughout the week, keeping spirits up when they need to be lifted, keeping them calm when they can get eccentric. Just keeping a well-oiled machine on the [No.] 1 team.
“One thing I really appreciate about Travis is his aggressive mentality. If there’s a gamble to be made, Travis is going to take the gamble. I stick with him 100% on those calls. [Having] an aggressive mentality as a driver is a lot of fun because you know the guy on the box is only thinking one thing and that’s winning.”
Away from the track, Annett and Mack have become close friends. The driver doesn’t claim to be a person to chat with someone just to chat, but with his crew chief is different.
“Travis definitely enjoys checking on you every day seeing how your day is going, what you’re doing for dinner,” Annett said. “I’ve always been reclusive, stick to myself, and had to realize, the guy really does care that much and you hurt his feelings if you don’t respond and he thinks something’s wrong.
“He’s brought that out of me, and I think now I bug him when I think something’s wrong. I shoot him a text, asking him a bunch of nothing. It’s definitely become a friendship and when you have that bond and relationship, it makes the rough times a heck of a lot better.”
Through the opening 17 races of the 2020 season, Annett has scored a trio of top-five finishes, tallying up nine top-10 finishes. The No. 1 team is on a streak of six straight, dating back to Pocono Raceway in late June.
But the team isn’t content with just top 10s.
“We’ve had fast cars and feel like our cars have been better than where we’ve been finishing,” Mack said. “We feel really good about our cars and where Michael’s at. He’s getting a lot better on restarts and I feel good about where our program is going into the last half of the season.”
- After running 13 races in 65 days, the Xfinity Series has an off-weekend this week. With nine races remaining until the playoffs begin, Brandon Brown holds a 32-point advantage over Jeremy Clements for the final playoff position.
- Late last week, Andy Lally announced he would be driving the No. 02 Chevrolet for Our Motorsports at the two upcoming road course races at Road America and Daytona. Lally last competed in 2018 for DGM in three races, scoring a 10th-place finish at Road America.
- Despite finishing 24th at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on July 4, Mike Wallace is returning to JD Motorsports at Road America and the Daytona road course in August. By competing in three races, it’ll mark the most Wallace has competed in a single season since 2014.