Most 17th-place finishes in the NASCAR Nationwide Series are generally met with a nod and passing acknowledgement. But Michael Annett's most recent effort with a nearly mid-pack result was more momentous than most.
Annett was left managing a smile as he crawled out of his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford on Saturday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway, completing a long road to recovery back to the track. The History 300 marked the driver's first race since suffering a fractured and dislocated sternum in a late-race crash in the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 23.
"I feel great, honestly," Annett told the media in post-race interviews on pit road. "I was telling someone else that the only thing I really felt was my neck. You definitely realize there are muscles you only use when you're in a race car and you can't really train for it. My neck was a little bit sore, but if that's the only things that's sore, it's an easy fix."
Annett may have benefitted from the unique Charlotte race week schedule as a means of easing back into the cockpit after missing the series' last eight races. After receiving medical clearance from NASCAR officials on May 21, the 26-year-old driver turned 45 laps in a four-hour test session last Wednesday on the 1.5-mile track, then turned 53 more over two practices Thursday. All the while, he consulted with doctors and team officials who helped him find a level of comfort as he strapped in for practice.
Once there Saturday, he worked his way up from a 33rd-place starting position, but a pit-road speeding infraction and the gridlock from a handful of late-race restarts kept him from further forward progress. Still, he saved his car from catastrophe when Matt Kenseth and Sam Hornish Jr. collided to the inside of him, forcing Hornish to wash up the track and taking Annett with him near the outside retaining wall.
Both continued without further contact. While the finish could have been better, it also could have been much worse.
"It was definitely an adventurous race back," Annett said. "I got out and looked at the car and it seems like every corner of it is hit. I got in a three-wide situation there with Sam and lost quite a few spots. I had to overcome a speeding penalty early on, which is my fault, and that just made our day long with where we qualified, so I didn't do anything to help myself today.
"But the car came home in one piece. We ran all the laps and got a top-20. It's not what we wanted, but something we can go off of."
Annett's eagerness to return to the track was countered by the extensive time it took for his injury to heal. He said that he wasn't allowed to work out with weights until about two weeks before race day, but once cleared, he ventured into physical therapy by making baby steps instead of big strides.
"I'm used to going and maxing out on the bench press, and they went over to the weight rack and grabbed the little girl pink weights that are like two pounds and brought them over," Annett said. "I was like, 'What are we even doing here?' But you do 30 reps of those and you're tired, so it was stuff like that and working my way up. Today, I felt like I just got out of the car after Homestead last year."
Continued time in the gym should help Annett stay on the mend for this Saturday's 5-Hour Energy 200 (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Dover International Raceway. Though the event is 100 miles shorter than his first race back, the demanding nature of the high-speed concrete bowl known as the Monster Mile should provide at least an equal challenge.
"I figured sitting on the couch for six months, (coming back) wasn't going to be a magic snap of the fingers," Annett said. "Still, I'm happy with our run today and, like I said, able to roll in here and take the checkered and go on to Dover."
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