Michael Annett entered the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series season with a wave of momentum, fresh off the best two years he‘s had in NASCAR. His success is largely thanks to the mastermind who sat on his pit box: Travis Mack.
When Mack first joined the No. 1 team during the summer of the 2018 season, Annett’s performance saw an instant uptick. He kicked off the 2019 season with a bang, winning his first NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway. That year, he led a career high 94 laps and finished ninth in points. In 2020, Annett recorded a career best 22 top-10 finishes, four times placing inside the top five.
But then last fall, Mack broke the news to Annett at lunch at Big Daddy’s, a burger shop in Mooresville, N.C., that he was moving to startup Cup Series team Trackhouse Racing to be Daniel Suarez‘s crew chief.
Annett believed the two were going to discuss the upcoming season, but realized quickly that wasn’t the case.
“It wasn‘t upsetting, it was more disappointing,” Annett recently told Jayski.com of Mack leaving the team. “He wanted to go to lunch and didn‘t tell me why he wanted to go to lunch because we go to lunch all the time. I brought up something about things to get prepared for over the offseason, and he‘s like, ‘That‘s kind of what I want to talk to you about.‘ I knew right away the second he told me. Right away, I said, you‘ve got to do it. ‘This is your chance and a great opportunity, and he laid it out there of why he wanted to do it.
“I‘ve been around this sport for a pretty long time now, and there‘s been situations where I‘ve left teams because I felt it was a better situation. That‘s the opportunity Travis was presented, and that‘s what the Xfinity Series is for.”
Known to be a Chili’s guy, Annett joked the two purposefully didn’t have the meeting at Chili’s to ruin their experience. After all, it was there where the two first met in 2018.
The search for a new crew chief was underway, and Annett recalled it being the most input he’s ever had searching for a new leader atop the pit box. People he was interested in would receive a phone call from the driver, rather than having LW Miller (director of motorsports at JR Motorsports) or Ryan Pemberton (director of competition at JRM) be in charge.
In early December, the decision was made, Mike Bumgarner, formerly race operations director of JRM, would be taking over the crew chief role of the No. 1 Chevrolet.
In the past, Bumgarner worked for nearly 20 years at Hendrick Motorsports, including being the car chief on the Nos. 5 and 24 Cup Series cars. But when joining JRM in 2013, he led the way for a ride split between Kasey Kahne and Brad Sweet.
Since 2013, Bumgarner has made one-off appearances as crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tyler Reddick and even the 2016 Xfinity championship race with Elliott Sadler.
Compared to last year, his role has changed quite a bit.
“Basically, [I was] the guy that handled a lot of the parts and components, buying used parts from Hendrick Motorsports, working with the chassis shop, working with the motor shop at different times,” Bumgarner said. “Just handling being the liaison between Hendrick and JR Motorsports.”
Prior to linking up as driver and crew chief, Annett and Bumgarner had no real relationship. Annett does recall Bumgarner being very respected on the shop floor, and in 2017, his first year with JRM, Bumgarner won an unsung hero award within the race shop at a Christmas party, getting a free trip out of the country.
“[Bumgarner] was somebody Travis had a lot of faith in, a lot of trust in,” Annett said. “When we were going through some names of potential crew chiefs, I brought his name up to Travis and he said, ‘Man, I was thinking that all along, so glad you said that.””
After debriefing with Mack, Annett asked crew members of the No. 1 team what they thought. They were sold.
“Everybody was so bought into one person before they even had the job, and it was pretty amazing,” Annett said. “Not one person could find something bad to say about Mike and that speaks a lot about his character and how people believe in him.”
At first, Bumgarner wasn’t sure what to expect as crew chief. His lone full-time year was the 2013 Xfinity season, so he’s been leaning heavily on other JRM crew chiefs Dave Elenz, Jason Burdett and Taylor Moyer.
Annett wanted to make sure those crew chiefs would take care of Bumgarner and not steer him down the wrong path.
“No one wants to see [Bumgarner] fail at this because they like him so much,” Annett stated. “They want to see him be successful, they want to see our team be successful and that‘s made everybody step up.”
Primarily being away from the pit box for many years, Bumgarner isn’t sure if he’s the short-term or long-term solution to the No. 1 crew chief role. He said he and the team are going to “fight like heck” in 2021 and then see what happens come the end of the year.
“I get up on that box and I really enjoy the racing side of it,” Bumgarner added. “Trust me, there‘s times where I think, ‘How far do I want this to go?‘ I feel like in the past when I‘ve done it I‘ve never really had as much control as I have now. It‘s like, ‘OK, this is your deal, let‘s win races, make the playoffs and have opportunities to do greater things beyond that.‘”
Because Bumgarner has more control this time around, he believes being a crew chief is easier than race operations director because he’s not overseeing all four JRM cars.
His sole focus is making the No. 1 car fast.
“I was more stressed out sitting at home watching four race teams, wondering if something was going to break,” he said. “Sitting at home last year, watching your guys run for a championship and something happens, it‘s very hard to sit in your chair.”
Through seven races — just one thus far in the month of April — both Annett and Bumgarner believe their chemistry is starting to click. They’ve gone through the process of getting to know one another and seeing what setups the driver likes in his car at all types of racetracks.
Annett believes Bumgarner is much different from the plethora of crew chiefs he’s worked with previously. Though the crew chief has told the driver he can get pissed off, Annett hasn’t yet seen that side of him.
Annett stated, “I‘ve never had anyone as calm as he is on the radio when things are going good or bad. It’s pretty amazing.”
What Annett believes got the duo on the same page very quickly was looking back at past race films, watching some of the gutsy calls Mack would make from the pit box. So far in 2021, there hasn’t been those opportunities to make out-of-left-field calls.
The No. 1 team has a trio of top-10 finishes in seven races this year, with a pair of DNFs, via wrecking out at Daytona and blowing an engine at Phoenix Raceway. At the Daytona road course, Annett broke a driveshaft, managing a 15th-place finish, and at Homestead-Miami Speedway cut a tire with less than five laps remaining.
Overall, it’s been a disappointing start to the season for Annett from a results standpoint, but he believes the best is yet to come.
“We need that breakout race,” he explained. “JR Motorsports as a whole, we all had some terrible luck at the beginning of the year and we were showing the same speed Justin [Allgaier] had all year and he just put it all together at Atlanta [Motor Speedway]. I feel like we‘ve been a little better than the [No.] 8 car all year and they put it together at Martinsville [Speedway].”
Bumgarner believes the team has the speed to contend for victories, and is now focused on minimizing mistakes to be in contention at the end of races.
“We‘ve had speed,” he said. “We just have to finish putting races together.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., co-owner of JR Motorsports, echoed Bumgarner’s thoughts, believing the pairing has barely scratched the surface and will be successful in the near future.
“I think that’s a great combination and it seems to be working really well,” Earnhardt said in a recent media availability. “They haven’t really missed a beat on the performance side.”
When it comes to the potential of the No. 1 team, Annett believes “the sky‘s the limit.” And despite having just one victory in 302 Xfinity starts, he believes that a second win is looming.
“Once we get that full race put together, nail that final restart and put ourselves in victory lane, I think we‘re going to be dangerous,” Annett said with authority. “The results may not show it, but I feel like we‘ve had a lot more speed than we‘ve had in the past and we‘re continuing to make the car better throughout a race.
“If we continue to do that, taste victory lane, I think we‘re going to be really dangerous.”