Kyle Larson’s last-lap, airborne, fence-breaking, fan-injuring crash made national headlines at Daytona International Speedway. But the big crash before it took a heavier toll on a driver. 26-year-old Michael Annett’s No. 43 Pilot Travel Centers Ford snapped head-on into the wall and then got hit on both sides by other wrecking cars. The crash looked similar to most other large restrictor plate racing melees, but Annett knew his impact was something different on the ambulance ride to the infield care center afterwards. After getting quickly out of his wrecked car and into the ambulance, Annett says he felt something wrong with his chest.

“I took my helmet off and my gloves and I could kind of feel some pressure in my chest. So I undid my suit and kind of started feeling around. And the best way to put it, it felt like there was a golf ball right in the middle of my sternum trying to stick out through the skin,” Annett tells News/Talk WSB, while on the way to this weekend’s NASCAR races at Bristol Motor Speedway.

After doctors in the track care center determined the severity of Annett’s injury, they transported him across the street to Halifax Health and Medical Center. Doctors at the hospital immediately began trauma procedures and then took the Richard Petty Motorsports driver for a CT scan. But as Annett’s testing began, the horrifying aftermath of Larson’s crash sent the Halifax staff into high alert.

“As they were getting ready to start the [CT] scan, one of the nurses came in and said, ‘We have got eight traumas coming in and we need some help out here!’ and I knew right away that it probably wasn’t eight drivers hurt, so either it was a wreck on the highway or some fans injured. From there on, they kind of got my injury under control and knew it wasn’t a life or death situation. And at that point I told them, ‘You need to go help the fans – it sounds like their injuries are more severe.’”

After determining some sort of problem with Annett’s sternum, the hospital kept him overnight and he saw the replays of Larson’s crash again and again on TV. He rode back to North Carolina the next day with friend and fellow driver, Todd Bodine, while watching the Daytona 500. Annett did not figure to miss any races, but tests early the next week showed his sternum injury to be worse. Doctors performed surgery to put plates around the jutting part of his sternum and the head surgeon immediately said the injury and recovery would sideline him for eight weeks. They told him to limit physical activity and allow his broken bones to heal. Since then, that prognosis has gotten better and Annett hopes that tests early next week will give him a timetable of less than a month before a return to his racecar. He is joining his race team this weekend to root on friend Reed Sorenson, whom he was riding with while doing this interview. The Peachtree City, Georgia native will drive for Annett while he recovers and finished 16th last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Annett had a breakout 2012, scoring 17 top 10s and finishing 5th in points. He had hoped to be in the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship battle again this year, but says the pressure of points racing is now of his – well – chest.

“I have never won a race in the Nationwide Series. So I think it is going to put us in a position when I get back to not only myself be more aggressive and take some more chances that I wouldn’t if I were points racing for a championship, but [crew chief] Philippe [Lopez] is going to be able to call a lot more aggressive races fuel mileage-wise and take some chances on me staying out. When I get back, it is going to be the best chance I have had in a long time to win some races.”

Annett has 139 career NNS starts and 2013 is to be his 5th “full” season. Maybe missing five or six races is worth the wait, if he can go for his first-ever NASCAR win.