Daytona International Speedway might be the most important place on the stock car racing map.
It is to NASCAR what the Rose Bowl is to college football, what Madison Square Garden is to basketball, and what the Montreal Forum once was to hockey.
For Michael Annett, the track just a few miles from Florida’s Atlantic coast has been the scene of some of his most notable successes. It’s the place where the former Waterloo Black Hawks defenseman-turned-racecar driver hopes to catapult his third season in NASCAR’s top series off to a fast start on Sunday during the Daytona 500.
“We’re so much more prepared this year than we were last year. We put our race team together in a month last year,” Annett said, adding that this season, “the team is really close to the same…everything about our team is much more prepared this year, and that definitely has me looking forward to it.”
Annett finished 13th in last February’s Daytona 500. It was his top showing in 2015. The best, in fact, during his first two seasons of NASCAR Sprint Cup driving.
In his five full years on NASCAR’s Nationwide/Xfinity series – the AAA or AHL of stock car racing – Annett’s best finish came at the 2.5-mile high-banked superspeedway when he drove to third during a July 2012 race.
Now he seeks a similar breakthrough at the Sprint Cup level.
“For a small team like ours, we get really excited for the plate tracks, because anybody can win at a superspeedway. The playing field is just really level. Everyone is going the same speed, it’s just the driver making the right moves at the right time. The best way to put it is that it’s a chess match at 212 miles an hour.”
The “plate” Annett is referencing is a key factor equalizing all race teams when they visit Daytona and the track’s larger cousin, Talladega Superspeedway. At these two locations, a restrictor plate reduces the amount of air which reaches the engine, thus limiting the combustion which can occur and the horsepower which can be generated. Consequently, cars are unable to accelerate as fast. Originally implemented as a safety innovation, the unintended consequence is that cars end up racing inches apart in freight train-like packs or “drafts,” which tend to yield spectacularly dangerous multicar wrecks.
“I don’t think any driver is ever comfortable at a restrictor plate track,” Annett admits. “There’s so many things out of your control. You can do everything right and still get taken out…I’ve wrecked running for the lead, I’ve wrecked running in the middle of the pack. There’s just no safe place.”
But Annett and his team have been good at avoiding wrecks and other problems which might otherwise take his #46 Pilot Flying J Chevrolet into the garage. While his average finish last season was in the high 20s, there were only three races he failed to finish.
“If your car is not handling the way you want it to, you’ve got to take what you’re given,” he notes. “I learned very early on that you can’t make a racecar faster if it is torn up and in the body shop.”
On whether this could turn out to be a breakthrough season, Annett is setting reasonable expectations after finishing 36th in the 2015 Sprint Cup standings.
“I feel like we can be top-25 consistently. Looking at last year, weekends that we put the whole weekend together, had a good racecar, had a good practice, qualified decent, we ran top-25. With how much better prepared we are, I feel like top-25 is within our sights.”
To get his starting spot for Sunday, Annett hits the track at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the second of two 125-mile qualifying races. The green flag waves on the Daytona 500 at noon Sunday.
That’s when Annett’s third Sprint Cup season gets rolling at faster than three miles per minute.
Where Are They Now is presented by Karen’s Print Rite. Special thanks to Kurt Smith and Hudson Hall of Rising Star Management Group.