DES MOINES, Iowa — Michael Annett has always cherished racing at his home-state track. This time, Annett's latest trip to Iowa Speedway will mark a major milestone in his comeback from a gruesome injury.
Annett will race for the third time since fracturing and dislocating his sternum in February when the NASCAR Nationwide series runs at Newtown on Saturday night.
The opportunity to race just 35 miles west of his hometown of Des Moines is special to Annett. But what makes it even more important for Annett is that the Newton track is where he finished fourth last August after starting 17th — a run that rivaled any in Annett's short career.
"This is where we took off," Annett said. "Finishing fourth there the last time we were there, and being so close to winning the race, that's the biggest reason why I wanted to make sure I'd be able to run Iowa."
Annett knows he's lucky to racing anywhere this season after what happened at Daytona just over three months ago. Just 85 laps before a wreck that left over two dozen fans injured, Annett's No. 43 car got tagged from behind, sending it into the wall. The 11-car crash shattered a bone in his chest.
In an instant, Annett went from chasing a Nationwide championship to a slow and grueling rehabilitation.
Annett wasn't allowed to lift anything over 10 pounds until early May, forced instead to ride an elliptical machine to maintain his cardio. He watched races from the pit box for three months before returning for the Charlotte race May 25, finishing 17th. He finished 13th at Dover last weekend.
Annett said he hasn't felt rusty since returning. But he has noticed that, in his view, the rest of the series has improved considerably.
"I feel completely comfortable. It didn't take too long for me there in Charlotte to realize how tough the competition in the Nationwide series this year is compared to last year," Annett said. "Each race there's probably 15 winning race cars, as to where last year there was five to 10 that might win it."
After years of middling results, Annett emerged last season as one of the best drivers in the Nationwide series.
Annett racked up six top-five finishes in 2012, something he'd never done in the 105 races from 2008-11. He also finished in the top 10 17 times in 33 starts, and he wound up fifth in the Nationwide standings even though he failed to win a pole or a race. Though Annett has put his injury behind him, he's still fighting to get back to where he was last fall.
"The toughest part was not being able to build on the momentum we had going into the season," Annett said. "It felt like we were knocking on the door of our first win, and for sure going to be racing for a championship this year ... everything was in place to go after that championship."
Annett almost certainly can't win the title this season after missing eight races though.
But it's possible that such bad luck could end up being a blessing for Annett's career.
Annett and his team stepped back and re-evaluated their goals for 2013 in light of his injury. They realized that since racing solely for points would be, well, pointless, they should run to win every time out.
Adapting to a more aggressive strategy isn't as simple as it might sound.
Last week at Dover, Annett took two tires near the end of the race instead of staying out and pushing for a higher finish. It was a natural call for Annett and his crew chief, Philippe Lopez, but Annett said they don't plan to play it so safe the rest of the season.
"Not racing for points, there are a lot of chances I can take on the track that I probably wouldn't (before)," Annett said. "I guarantee you, with (Iowa) being my home track, we'll be big-time gamblers this weekend."