The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Sorenson Could Be Casey Atwood, Part II ... And Two Teams Better Than One For Big Four by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday August 27, 2008

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Did You Notice? … That sneaky suspicion that Reed Sorenson’s move to Gillett Evernham Motorsports equals the second coming of Casey Atwood? In light of the official announcement Sorenson’s headed to GEM, I can’t stop thinking about the comparison between the two.

For new fans, some background: both were rookies in the Cup Series at 20 years old, driving for what equated to be middle-of-the-pack teams. At the time of Atwood’s rise into the Cup Series, Evernham Motorsports was in their first year of competition, spearheading Dodge’s return to the series after more than 20 years on the sidelines.

But Atwood’s maturity level just wasn’t there at the Cup level. He struggled through most of his rookie season, and by the time he began to show signs of life, it was way too late. Instead of developing the kid, Evernham grew impatient and shipped him off to a satellite team to make room for veteran Jeremy Mayfield. Atwood didn’t adapt to that too well, and his career hit rock bottom the following year when he was released from that Cup ride after mailing it in driving inferior equipment. By 2003, Atwood’s contract with Evernham was all but null and void, and he hasn’t landed a full-time ride in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions in almost four years.

With Casey Atwood’s career all but gone and Patrick Carpentier’s future in doubt, Ray Evernham’s garage may not be a pleasant home for Reed Sorenson.

Back then, it seemed Atwood needed a little bit of tender, loving care to counterbalance his immaturity – but Evernham just didn’t have the patience for it. Now, compare that to Sorenson, who comes to GEM in need of the same type of TLC after three frustrating seasons with Chip Ganassi. When Sorenson debuted with CGR as a rookie, the team wasn’t in as bad a shape as it is right now – in his first race of 2006, CGR’s No. 42 (then driven by Casey Mears) finished runner-up in the Daytona 500. That year, Sorenson had Mears as a mentor and slowly adapted to life at the top level, coming home with one Top 5 and five Top 10 finishes to place 24th in the season standings.

But at the end of that year, Mears left for Hendrick — and Sorenson’s development stalled right along with it. With the addition of open-wheelers Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti into the fold, Sorenson has become increasingly isolated within the Ganassi camp. There have been reports of missed sponsor appearances this season and general lackadaisicalness as he appeared to get stuck in a rut with the No. 41 car. There’s a reason why Felix Sabates came out and said this week Sorenson’s as good as he’s going to get – it’s because that by the end of his tenure with CGR, there’s a general perception he’s stopped pushing himself, lost and lazy instead of leading the charge. According to people I’ve talked to, the majority consensus is Sorenson’s one-time phenom status had him expecting a handout instead of hard work. I even got that impression from the comments in Tuesday’s press release. It’s almost as if according to Reed, he’s just been driving crappy cars all this time — and all he needs is better equipment to solve his problems at the Cup level.

The question is, has the structure at GEM changed over the seven years since Atwood’s been a part of the program to the point where Sorenson’s got the right people behind him to give him a gut check? Well, my gut tells me the answer’s no. Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler aren’t people who’ll get in your face, and they’ve got enough on their plate keeping their own teams above water. There’s no longtime veteran on that team who can sit down the first few months of ’09, shake Sorenson around a bit – especially if he struggles early – and say, “You know what? If you don’t start busting butt, you’re not going to have an opportunity to drive in this series much longer.”

And just look at how GEM handled Patrick Carpentier. After six months of adjusting to stock cars, the Canadian open-wheel convert is beginning to show improvement — just like Atwood did after his initial struggles in 2001. And — just like Atwood — GEM seems poised and ready to kick him to the sidelines in favor of somebody else. Sometime in 2010, don’t be surprised if we find Sorenson in the same boat.

Did You Notice? … The cryptic comments hidden between Richard Childress’ announcement that Casey Mears will drive for the team next season? When asked about what happened to longtime employee Bobby Hutchins – who’s now moved over to Dale Earnhardt, Inc. for the rest of the year – Childress said that had been planned all along.

“That was a mutually agreed on deal,” he explained. “We didn’t lose him.”

With those words, Childress all but revealed the strong “partnership” that he’s been developing with a shop in which he already has an engine deal. But you can’t begrudge Childress from having a “B” team; after all, the other Big Four organizations already have their understudies.

A Team Cars B Team Cars
Hendrick Motorsports 4 Haas CNC Racing 2
Joe Gibbs Racing 3 Hall of Fame Racing 1
Roush Fenway Racing 5 Yates Racing 2
Richard Childress Racing 4 Dale Earnhardt, Inc. 4

If you’re counting at home, that means 25 of the 43 spots each week now coveted by either the Big Four themselves, or teams with significant influence wielded by the Big Four (let’s say it all together now, shall we: “(Insert A Team organization here) provides chassis and engines to (insert B Team organization here). Nothing more.” Suuure … like Yates would still be around without Roush – seeing as half their sponsors have come straight from Roush’s Nationwide and Truck programs – and Hall of Fame just picked up Joey Logano on the side of the road).

Anyways, if Childress and DEI are increasing the depth of their relationship, you can also see how it makes sense for Truex to stay implanted driving the No. 1 Chevy. If he wanted to sign with RCR, why bother when they’re going to be helping DEI anyway? Truex gives RCR a No. 1 driver for the “B” team they’re hoping to return to glory sometime in the near future.

Childress also went on to say he fully expected all four teams to be locked into the Top 35 for next season – even though his fourth team currently isn’t in existence. That means the organization would have to buy points or merge with another team to lock in, a rule that means if I’m Regan Smith, I’d start working on my resume. What better way to set up your new fourth team than to “buy” the unsponsored No. 01 from an organization you’re already working with and transfer those points to the No. 33? You can cut down to three teams at DEI and then just expand when the sponsorship market is right … brilliant. And that goes for those other organizations with “B” teams, they can skirt around the four-team rule by expanding within the context of these “chassis and engine-supported” organizations. Where do you think the fifth Roush team is going to go? Ford can’t afford for teams to just disappear…

In closing, once again I ask is having four owners with this much power good for the sport? Which brings me to my final DYN of the week …

Did You Notice? … The Chase field is currently comprised of three teams from Roush Fenway Racing, three teams from Childress, three from Gibbs, and three from Hendrick? It’s the perfect display of parity … for those four teams.

Contact Tom Bowles

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