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2008 Driver Review: Reed Sorenson

2008 Ride: No. 41 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Dodge
2008 Primary Sponsors: Target, Polaroid, Memorex, TUMS
2008 Owner: Chip Ganassi
2008 Crew Chief: Jimmy Elledge (Feb. – Apr.), Donnie Wingo (Apr. – Nov.)

Stats: 35 races, 0 wins, 1 top five, 2 top 10s, 0 poles, 32nd in points
Best Finish: Fifth (Daytona – February)

High Point: Reed Sorenson’s start to the 2008 season was identical to that of fellow Georgia racer David Ragan’s the year before. The driver of the No. 41’s fifth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 solidified the predictions of some that the 22-year-old was ready for a breakout year. Unfortunately, that run was Sorenson’s only top five of the season; and to add insult to injury, his sixth-place finish at the June New Hampshire race – which was scored only because of a fuel gamble – was his and the team’s only other top 10.

Low Point: Sorenson and the Target team wasted no time sliding into the points standings doldrums after that top-five finish in the Daytona 500. By the season’s midpoint in June, the No. 41 car was in danger of sliding out of the Top 35 in owner points. With the Infineon road-course race looming, Chip Ganassi and team officials decided to place road-course ace Scott Pruett behind the wheel of the Target car, meaning Sorenson missed his first Cup race since he began racing full-time in 2006. Sorenson took the move in stride, staying with the team to cheer them on and learn some of Pruett’s tricks on the track – just in case the team let him race at Watkins Glen later in the year.

Though Sorenson showed great loyalty that weekend, his commitment to the team was questioned at times while the No. 41 team remained stagnantly around 30th in the points. Reportedly, the young driver made a grave mistake, missing a major sponsor appearance during this make-or-break portion of his year. As murmurs about the young man’s character grew into regular conversation, rumors about his future with Ganassi only lowered team morale.

Most of Sorenson’s results were in the low 20s to early 30s during that stretch, making for a long summer in professional sports’ longest season.

Summary: As mentioned, Sorenson’s year started off incredibly – before teetering off the edge of a cliff and plummeting flat into a deep canyon. Following Daytona, he had just four top-25 finishes until a sixth-place performance at race number 17 in New Hampshire. A 12th at Richmond was the only other respectable run during that stretch.

The remaining 19 races of the season saw Sorenson finish only five more times in the top 25, including ending 2008 and his tenure at Ganassi with five consecutive finishes outside the top 30.

In virtually every stats category imaginable, what should have been a breakout season for Sorenson turned into one that was simply broken apart. After leading five laps in the Daytona 500, Sorenson did not lead another race until the Talladega fall race in October, ending the season with only 13 laps led overall. In the points chase, things went even worse. In Sorenson’s rookie year, he finished 24th in the standings, and then improved his position to 22nd in his sophomore year of 2007. Well, last season saw Sorenson slip back 10 spots to 32nd, with his average finishing position slipping from 24.4 to 28.0 in the process.

Sorenson’s decline is not entirely his doing. Ganassi Racing’s star driver and team Juan Pablo Montoya fell off considerably from 2007, and the No. 40 team and 2007 IRL champion Dario Franchitti fell well outside the Top 35 in points before folding in the middle of the season. With all his teams struggling, in April Ganassi decided to try and light a spark, opting to switch Montoya’s crew chief Donnie Wingo with Sorenson’s crew chief Jimmy Elledge. In hindsight, the move didn’t work; Sorenson had better chemistry with Elledge, who had been with him his entire full-time Cup career. Instead, he was fired from Ganassi over a month later, a move that caused Montoya to blast the team publicly and further sour the chemistry within the whole organization.

As for Sorenson – who was set to become a free agent after 2008 – he played his own part in turning chemistry sour by deciding late in the season to leave Ganassi in favor of Gillett Evernham Motorsports for 2009. This caused team co-owner Felix Sabates to criticize his driver publicly, leading to even more discontent in the No. 41 team and making their less-than-mediocre finishes even harder to stomach.

These factors, along with the competitive struggles of Dodge in general, contributed to Sorenson and the No. 41’s decline in 2008.

Off-Track News: An entire book could be written here. The No. 41 team swapped crew chiefs with the No. 42, gaining Donnie Wingo and losing Jimmy Elledge. Around this time, rumors began popping up regarding Target’s intentions to remain with the team or leave for the 2009 season.

When Ganassi opted to place Pruett in Sorenson’s seat in the No. 41 for Infineon, many began questioning whether Ganassi was beginning to look elsewhere for a driver for 2009. Sorenson remained in negotiations with the team, however, until the surprise announcement he was moving to GEM.

That move ended up being a murky one for Sorenson, because the sponsor and even the actual team he was supposed to be on were not completely definite. Originally, GEM said that it planned to field four cars and hoped to keep driver Patrick Carpentier in the No. 10 – if a sponsor could be found. When that hope disappeared and Carpentier was released, Sorenson was assumed to be the driver of the No. 10 Dodge. Then, however, rumors of the Petty/GEM merger began in early December, throwing Sorenson’s 2009 plans into even more flux.

2008 Team Ranking: Second out of two drivers at CGRFS. He was also second best when Franchitti and the No. 40 team were still active early in the season.

2009 Outlook: Since the Gillett-Petty merger has finally been partially announced, Team CEO Tom Reddin says that Sorenson will drive the famed No. 43 car in 2009 and will be in a better position than originally thought. Not only will the young driver have the luster that comes with the magical number on his door and roof, but he will have a coveted position inside the Top 35 in owner points, guaranteeing he will be in the first five races of 2009.

Since he is moving to an organization with slightly better equipment, Sorenson may run better in 2009 than he did last season. He will, however, have more pressure on him driving the King’s No. 43 and with a new sponsor in the Air Force, which is joining GEM this season for a handful of races. The merger also means that new components within GEM will have to start cooperating, meaning chemistry may be slow to take shape.

If Elliott Sadler’s strange situation ends up not working out over the next few months, a war of words could turn into poison for all of GEM’s four teams. That means if 2009 is going to be a success for Sorenson, he’ll need to show more maturity than he has to date. And if he doesn’t… GEM has shown it is not shy to throw drivers by the wayside.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: C
2007 Grade: C
2008 Grade: D

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