Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers, and more.
Following his 20th-place finish at Pocono Raceway, rookie Michael Annett, driver of the No. 7 Pilot Flying J Chevrolet SS for Tommy Baldwin Racing, sat down with David for an exclusive, extended interview. What follows is an edited transcript of their chat.
David Smith: You finished 20th at Pocono in your first visit there (the NASCAR Nationwide Series, of which Annett is graduate, does not compete at Pocono). I take it you like the place now?
Michael Annett: Not really (laughs).
Well, I think we had a good strategy going into it. We got to test there last week, which was huge. Our mindset was — and I’d never been there before in anything — that we’ve got a lot of practice time between the test and the actual race practices and it’s a chance to figure some things out. On the first day of the test, I’d come in and say ‘Don’t change anything on the car, because I’m not doing anything right yet.’ We went through lunch changing, maybe, just a half-pound of air pressure.
With that place — I’m sure you saw it — track position is everything. You get on the restarts, get all your passing done and then run for 30 laps until there’s another restart. As far as driving the track, there’s so much that goes into it. You can shift in every corner or you can shift in one corner. If the car was good and I felt like I could pass somebody, I’d charge and shift in every corner. If you’re 20 car lengths behind the car in front of you and there’s not a car close behind you, you start saving your stuff. To me, that’s not the kind of racing I like. The track is fun, but it’s not a fun race for me.
One thing I do like about it is that we go back there in a little over a month and I feel we’re way ahead of where we were when we first arrived for the test.
You’ve tested quite a bit this year. I’d imagine that a busy testing schedule is something that’s also relatively new for you. How often did you test when you were in the Nationwide Series?
When I was at Germain (Racing), we did a lot of short track testing near Greensboro. To me, we weren’t learning anything. Unless you’re at the tracks you race at, you’re not learning a whole lot. We’d go to Gresham (Motorsports Park in Georgia), but we went there when it had just been repaved and anybody could have crew chief’d a car and made it handle well because there was so much grip — like going to Kansas now. That’s why cars are so close there, because it’s not that hard to make them handle well.
We did quite a bit of testing with the 62 team (Rusty Wallace Racing) and hardly any with the 43 (Richard Petty Motorsports). Last year we did one test at Chicago and that was it.
So I take it the Tommy Baldwin Racing bunch makes more effective use of testing?
It’s been important for me, this being my first year in the Cup car, to see which changes do what. It’s also been good to work with Bono (Manion, crew chief). I was asked last weekend if I had more confidence in him now than I did at the beginning of the year. It was never a matter of confidence — he’s accomplished more in this sport than I have — it’s a matter of comfort. We’re way more comfortable now, and that’s what testing has done for us. Going to the track for six or seven hours, getting out of the car and just talking has helped his notebook grow. Last year he was with another team and another driver. This year he has to make a lot more happen for a smaller team and do it with a rookie driver, and I think he’s learning more and more about how to do that and that’s what we’ve seen here in the past few weeks.
I heard you’re a film study guy — you watch in-car video from old races on your iPad. How has that helped you?
It’s huge. The only problem is that each year the sport changes. Now we’ve got the new rules package. By talking to a Cup driver, you can learn about the characteristics of the track and get an idea for where the lift points are. I rode around with (Jamie) McMurray at Pocono and he was showing me ‘this is where I normally lift.’ He came back to me after being in the car and said, ‘I’m now driving it in way past where I told you.’ It’s because these cars have so much more downforce.
The in-cars are big for an idea of how to get around a place, but everybody this year is learning still.
What drivers do you typically watch on the in-cars?
Jimmie Johnson. You just have to. Normally it’s Johnson or Jeff Gordon. Now you can watch Kyle Busch and see how to go fast, but not a lot of people can drive like Kyle Busch can. I don't think there is anyone else that can drive a car that free. Jimmie Johnson is more of a middle-of-the-road setup guy. A driver with any kind of style can at least adapt to the way he drives.
It’s your first year seeing some of these drivers you’re competing against. Has there been a driver that has surprised you? Maybe one that is better than you initially thought they’d be?
That’s a good question. I’ve never gotten that one.
I think the one that sticks out is Kyle Larson. I guess I’m not surprised that he’s good, because I’ve never seen anybody do what he has been able to do on the way up. What surprises me is that he’s had so much success this year without even winning a Nationwide race last year. Obviously he ran well, but I noticed there were races where he struggled. I haven’t seen him struggle this year.
Let’s talk about your relationship with Tommy Baldwin, your team owner. You first worked with him when you were a development driver for Bill Davis Racing. Those early NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts with him as an advisor showed a lot of speed. How has the relationship been the second time around? Did it pick up where it left off?
At this point, the relationship is the same as it was. I still look up to him and take everything he says to heart. This time around, I’m more nervous to disappoint him. I know every time I come to the garage after practice is over, I’m going to hear from him. This is his company. It’s the TBR logo on every shirt. In the Truck Series, I was supposed to make mistakes. I was a rookie. Tommy was the crew chief of the 22 car (at Bill Davis Racing) and his hands were full, but he’d still call and ask, ‘Hey, how did that truck do?’ or ‘How did that ARCA car do?’ and there was one time he tore into me for a dumb mistake in an ARCA race. If I make a mistake now, it’s at a higher level. You don’t just not want to disappoint Tommy, you want to do better for him. I’m not worried about coming back and getting yelled it. I want to come back and have him say, ‘That was awesome.’
He goes to the stands to watch races, sort of like a football coordinator. How has he helped you adapt to some of these tracks during races?
It can go two ways. It’s a big help sometimes and other times I want to unstrap from the car and go and take the radio off of his head (laughs). But he and I joke about that. There are times when I know I did something wrong and know he’s getting ready to say something and I’ll just hold the radio down and say ‘I know, I know’ before he gets a chance to jump on me. Everything he tries to do is only to help. It’s constructive criticism.
Winning races is obviously a goal, but what else needs to happen for you this year? What do you want to get out of your rookie season that you haven’t gotten already?
We know what kind of equipment Larson has. We know what the 3 car (for driver Austin Dillon) has and what they’re working with, and I think we’re getting closer. I was ahead of the 3 until that final restart at Pocono and beat the 27 (of Paul Menard, Dillon’s Richard Childress Racing stable mate), so if we can start racing with the 3 and the 42 — and I think the 42 is bound to win a race this year — if we can battle with them and get a few Rookie of the Race awards, that would mean a lot this year. When you go to the driver’s meeting each weekend they present the award from the previous week and to get our name on that, and I think we’re getting closer and closer, that’s a huge goal.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.