By Steven Taranto – Follow at @STaranto92
November 4, 2016
Friday morning was filled with news concerning drivers announcing their intent to compete for the NASCAR XFINITY Series Championship in 2017.
Joe Gibbs Racing was first, with the announcement that Matt Tifft will compete for the team full-time in 2017. The Hinckley, Ohio driver has competed part-time in both the XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series in 2016, splitting time between Joe Gibbs Racing, JGL Racing, and Red Horse Racing. While a car number and sponsor were not announced, the team did reveal that Matt Beckman, a current race engineer for the No. 11 Sprint Cup Series team, will serve as Tifft’s crew chief.
“It has been an incredible year and I am honored to have the opportunity to continue working with Joe Gibbs Racing in the 2017 season,” Tifft stated in a team release. “I’ve always wanted the chance to contend for a championship with the Chase for the Championship program, I am thrilled to be with JGR and know they will be instrumental in my career.”
Entering the 2016 season, Tifft was scheduled to compete in 13 races for Joe Gibbs Racing, splitting the No. 18 Toyota with Kyle Busch. However, a low-grade glioma in his brain that was discovered when Tifft was undergoing treatment for back spasms forced him to miss significant time.
After recovering from brain surgery to remove the benign tumor, Tifft returned to competition in September, scoring a 12th place finish in his return Truck Series race at Chicagoland and a career-best fifth place finish at Kentucky in the XFINITY Series. In 15 combined starts between the two series this season, Tifft has scored two top fives, six top tens, and a pole in the XFINITY Series at Talladega Superspeedway.
Shortly after the news about Tifft was revealed, JR Motorsports announced that it would field a fourth full-time car in 2017 for driver Michael Annett. Annett will return to the XFINITY Series after three seasons of Sprint Cup competition behind the wheel of the No. 5 Pilot/Flying J Chevrolet. The Des Moines, Iowa native joins Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier, and rookie William Byron Jr. as part of JR Motorsports’ 2017 driver lineup.
“I’m excited for this opportunity with JR Motorsports,” said Annett in a JR Motorsports press release. “Dale Jr. and Kelley [Earnhardt-Miller] have done a great job building this organization. They have put the right people in place and have a championship to their name. I look forward to joining them and competing for wins and a championship next season in the XFINITY Series.”
Michael Annett is no stranger to XFINITY Series competition, having competed in the series full-time from 2009 to 2013. During that time period, Annett amassed seven top fives and 34 top tens, many of which came during a career year in 2012 where he scored six top fives and 17 top tens en route to a fifth-place finish in the final standings driving for Richard Petty Motorsports.
After missing eight races in 2013 due to a broken sternum suffered in a crash at Daytona, Annett moved to the Sprint Cup Series in 2014. However, results have been hard to come by in Cup competition for the former Bill Davis Racing prospect. Presently, Annett is ranked 36th in the Sprint Cup standings, the worst of any full-time driver.
Tifft and Annett’s joining of the XFINITY Series as full-time competitors adds to what is shaping up to be a deep field of drivers and teams for 2017. Stewart-Haas Racing has announced that it will enter the series full-time, with Cole Custer moving up from the Truck Series to compete for Rookie of the Year honors. Team Penske has revealed that they will re-expand from one to two full-time cars, with a driver to be announced for the team’s No. 12 Ford, and Precision Performance Motorsports has announced their intentions to field a full-time entry for Brandon Gdovic.
Existing teams are making moves as well, with Richard Childress Racing signing Truck Series driver Daniel Hemric to drive a car to be determined for the full season.
Alongside of these driver and team additions, multiple competitors have been announced as returning to the series in 2017. Current XFINITY Series Chase competitors Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier, Blake Koch, Ryan Reed, Brandon Jones, Brennan Poole, and Brendan Gaughan have all been confirmed to be staying put for the 2017 season by their respective teams.