Richard Petty Motorsports announced on Thursday that they will run Michael Annett in a new NASCAR Nationwide Series team in 2012. Iowan Annett, 25, finished ninth last season with Rusty Wallce Inc, and believes the move to the gold standard team will help him become a race winner.
“They say that when one door closes, another door opens, and that is most definitely true,” said Annett. “We were left scrambling a bit because of the situation with RWI and were unsure what the future held, but I couldn't be happier with the way things have turned out. To have the chance to race for Richard Petty and to be under the RPM umbrella is amazing.
“It has all come together really quickly, but together with Pilot Flying J and Ford, this is the best opportunity I have ever had to race a Nationwide Series car. There's a lot to be done before we get to Daytona in a few weeks and I can't wait to dive in and get started.”
Petty, whose Cup team signed Aric Almirola over the off-season to run its iconic #43 car, is looking forward to working his newest signing.
“This has been an exciting couple of months for Richard Petty Motorsports,” said Petty, a seven time champion and inaugural Hall of Fame member. “We are looking forward to getting back into the Nationwide Series full time and seeing what Michael Annett can do in an RPM Ford Mustang. Michael has improved every season he has raced in the Nationwide Series and has the dedication and drive to be a success.”
The addition of RPM to the Nationwide Series only adds to its growing prestige. Last year, new regulations were introduced which meant drivers could only nominate one series in which to score points, thus rewarding Nationwide-only teams and preventing them from being “Buschwhacked” by drivers from the Cup series. This ruling means that Kyle Busch's team – the Monster Energy-backed Kyle Busch Motorsport squad, will only be competing for owner's points.
Last year, Roush Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took his maiden title, but will have to fight tooth and nail to fend off the tenacious Elliott Sadler, denied the chance to take the fight down to the wire last year by an accident not of his making at the penultimate round, if he is to have a chance at holding onto it. 'Little Gator' Justin Allgier will as ever be a threat with Turner Motorsports, while Danica Patrick, who peaked with 4th at Las Vegas in a part-time schedule last year, will look to impress in her first full season since moving from Indycar. Partnering Patrick at Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team JR Motorsport, is promising 20 year old Truck Series graduate Cole Whitt, who according to Earnhardt, has a big future ahead of him.
“Cole is the guy we wanted, and we’re lucky to get him,” Earnhardt said. “He’s got raw, untapped talent, but we are most impressed with his ambition. I sought advice and input from people I respect in the industry, and the overwhelming consensus was that Cole has the potential to do great things in this sport.”
One of the undoubted favourites this season will be former Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr., who took his first NASCAR Nationwide win at Phoenix last year in a part-time campaign, and will be back with Penske this season for a fully-fledged title tilt.
“I’m really excited about this season,” Hornish said on Thursday. “Last year was a little difficult to say the least. I was able to learn a lot last year. We’ve definitely got a lot of things headed in the right direction.”
Reigning Truck series champion Austin Dillon will make the step up to the Nationwide championship in the iconic Richard Childress Racing no.3, while fellow Truck graduates – Californian Brad Sweet, the Brazilian former F1 racer Nelson Piquet Jr. and 2010 Snowball Derby winner Johanna Long, will also compete for Rookie of the Year honours.
Sadly, budget trouble is hamstringing reigning Daytona 500 champ Trevor Bayne's attempts to get back into the Nationwide Series full time in 2012. Bayne, 20, was 11th in points last year despite missing 5 races to recover from Lyme disease. Although he has a part-time deal in place to remain with the Wood Brothers in Cup, Bayne lacks the sponsorship to compete full time for the Nationwide championship with Roush.
“We’re working at it as hard as we can, because I want to run for a championship,” Bayne said. “But right now, it’s probably part-time.”
Stenhouse is worried that the loss of Bayne could work against him in his attempts to defend his title.
“To not have that second car there is going to be a little tough,” the 2011 champion said on Tuesday. “Every single practice last year, we had a meeting after and when one person was struggling, we were able to help them out and make it better. They’ve helped us throughout last year. So taking that out of it is going to be tough.
“Having that teammate there to bounce ideas off of, whether it’s the way he’s driving the race car, the way his feels versus mine feels, setup differences – there’s a lot that I think is not there right now. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge for us.”
The Nationwide season starts February 25th at Daytona International Speedway with the DRIVE4COPD 300, an event won the last four years running by Sprint Cup interloper Tony Stewart. Can 'Smoke' do it again?