Don’t look now, but one of the hottest drivers in the NASCAR Nationwide Series is the surprising Michael Annett, who is enjoying a strong first season in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford Mustang.
Coming into the 2012 season, Annett had made 105 career Nationwide starts, never finishing higher than sixth in a race or ninth in points.
But so far this season, the 26-year-old Iowa native has made meaningful progress after putting a deal together with RPM just one week before the season-opening race at Daytona.
With 18 of 33 races in the books this season, Annett is sixth in points and his driver rating is 87.09, much better than his previous high of 77.37 in 2011. And he’s clearly on an upward trajectory, scoring three top-five finishes in his last four races, including a career-best third at Daytona three races ago.
Although he’s only led six laps this season, Annett has finished on the lead lap 13 times and finished in the top 15 an impressive 15 times. Given that RPM is Annett’s third team in as many seasons, that’s a laudable record.
This week, though, the task at hand becomes a good bit more daunting.
For the first time, the NASCAR Nationwide Series will race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the field is loaded with NASCAR Sprint Cup regulars, virtually all of whom have lots of experience at the fabled 2.5-mile oval: Both Busch brothers, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, 2011 Brickyard 400 winner Paul Menard and Kasey Kahne are among the Cup veterans entered in Saturday’s race. They are the favorites to take home the trophy and the check this time.
Still, Annett is looking for a good run on Saturday.
“As a kid growing up I always dreamed of racing at the Brickyard, so it’s a huge honor to be part of the inaugural NASCAR Nationwide Series race there this weekend,” said Annett. “There are going to be a lot of unknowns going into the 250-mile race, but we have a lot of notes from our teammates in the Cup Series we can utilize. I know my Pilot Flying J M848ff8if9a6fb627facGGcdbcce6M’s Snack Mix crew will do their best to give me a car capable of winning this weekend, and I hope we can be part of history when it’s all said and done on Saturday.”
Annett’s crew chief, veteran Philippe Lopez, likes what he’s seen so far in his driver and the improvement in the team.
“He (Annett) was knocking down tenths and ninths and eights and now all of a sudden we’ve gotten a little bit better,” said Lopez. “Now we’re knocking down thirds, fourths and fifths. So we keep on this curve and he keeps his nose to the grindstone and we’re going to keep trying to make these cars just a little bit better and hopefully put ourselves in position to win.”
Lopez said his driver delivers accurate feedback and isn’t the excitable type, two important assets.
“He’s very good with his information, as he doesn’t overreact,” Lopez said. “He’s a very quiet individual and sometimes I’ve got to pry it out of him, because if I don’t ask, he’s not going to say. But when he tells me something, it’s usually spot-on as far as the scale of it. It’s really nice that he doesn’t over-exaggerate and he doesn’t try to take too much on himself.”
The next goal is to win a race, something Lopez said is rapidly becoming a possibility.
“Three out of the last four weeks we finished top five,” said Lopez. “Kentucky, he (Annett) ran in the top five all day long. Chicago, he turned it on at the end and got in the top five. If he keeps his work ethic and we keep making the cars a little bit better and a little bit better, yeah, we can put ourselves in position to win a race.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.