Michael Annett’s road to the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs got a little less rocky on Saturday as the Iowa native raced his No. 1 Pilot Flying J #ThankATrucker Chevrolet to a 14th-place finish in the Sports Clips Haircuts VFW Help a Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway, gaining 22 points toward the top 12 in the standings. Annett now trails 12th-place Riley Herbst by just 46 points with two races remaining in the regular season. Stage One Finish: 15th Starting the 147-lap event from the 19th position after NASCAR used its mathematical formula to determine the starting lineup earlier in the week, Annett moved forward from the waving of the initial green flag despite a new 600-foot section of asphalt around the top of Turn 2. After moving up one position on the first lap, Annett gained a place a lap over the next five to run 13th. He was still there at lap 12, when the first caution of the day came out for a spinning car on the front straightaway. Annett told crew chief Mike Bumgarner that the new asphalt in Turn 2 had a lot of grip, but his car was working to the loose side over the initial run. Once the race went back to green-flag racing, Annett worked his way up to 11th at the lap-20 competition caution. The loose condition was getting more pronounced, Annett told Bumgarner, in Turns 1 and 2, as there was almost a four-wheel slide through the corner, but Annett stayed on track and moved up to ninth for the restart. Over the remaining distance in the 45-lap Stage One, Annett would struggle with rear grip and ended up 15th at the green-and-white checkered flag. Following the stage, Annett told Bumgarner that his car had no rear grip to speak of in the center of the corners at either end of the track in the second half of the opening stage, and the veteran crew chief called his driver down pit road at the break for four tires, fuel and several chassis adjustments to help his handling. The Pilot Flying J pit crew picked up one position on the stop to put Annett 14th for the start of Stage Two. Stage Two Finish: 15th Firing off for the start of Stage Two, Annett worked his way through the changes while holding his position when the caution waved at lap 59 for a two-car incident in Turn 2. Annett told Bumgarner that the changes were good, but since everyone was on fresh tires he couldn’t make the middle groove to his liking. Over the remainder of Stage Two, Annett battled in the top 15 and finished there at lap 90. Under caution, Annett told Bumgarner that the changes made on the first stop were good and he could use more of the same for the final stage. Bumgarner gave his driver four more tires, fuel and another chassis adjustment to help over the remaining laps. Annett would line up 12th for the start of the final segment. Final Stage: Annett put the changes to good use once the green flag waved, moving into the top 10 just four laps into the final stage. At lap 110, the caution waved for a crash in Turn 3 which involved Herbst, one that eliminated the young driver from competition for the day. With a chance to take a big bite out of his point deficit, Annett came to pit road under the yellow for four tires and a chassis adjustment with 37 laps remaining in the event. Returning to the track in 13th position, Annett was able to improve four positions on the first lap of green-flag racing to run ninth. He continued to move forward, taking eighth place on lap 119. Annett would stay in the top 10 for the next 20 laps, battling with Jeb Burton and Daniel Hemric. When Brandon Jones spun in Turn 4 on lap 138, Annett came to pit road for his last set of tires and further adjustments. Returning to the track in ninth place, Annett readied for the restart, which would change the course of his day. A slower car started outside the front row on old tires, with predictable results. Unable to get up to speed, the slower car caused the pack to bunch up and Annett had to dive to the inside to avoid contact. That put him at a shallow entry to Turn 2 and cost the Iowa native several positions to 15th. Despite one more restart following a debris caution that pushed the race to overtime, Annett could gain just one spot to 14th before the checkered flag waved at lap 152. JR Motorsports teammate Noah Gragson won the race over Harrison Burton, Austin Cindric, Justin Haley and Jeb Burton. JRM’s Justin Allgaier was sixth, with Tyler Reddick, Jeremy Clements, Myatt Snider and Alex Labbe the remainder of the top 10.
“We gained points on the 98 (Herbst), but we could have gained a lot more if the end of the race had worked out better. Our Pilot Flying J #ThankATrucker Chevrolet was pretty good most of the day, but we got loose as the runs went on. Bummy (crew chief Mike Bumgarner) made good adjustments and we had a great shot at a top-10 or maybe a top-five, but the last couple of restarts were wild. We need to keep some momentum next week at Richmond and have some good luck.” - Michael Annett