Reed Sorenson is running the majority of the Nationwide Series schedule with arguably the best standalone team in the garage. It’s a situation any 24-year-old aspiring racer would dream of – an opportunity to make it to the big time.
But Sorenson’s already spent four full years at stock car racing’s highest level. He’s already tasted what it feels like to take the green flag in front of thousands of screaming fans on a Sunday afternoon. So what an opportunity to run 23 races for Braun Racing in 2010 means to Sorenson is something invaluably more:
A second chance.
Possibly one final chance.
A product of the early- to mid-2000s quest for the next Jeff Gordon, Sorenson was one of a number of teenagers thrown into the NASCAR spotlight with relatively little experience. Among those tapped as developmental drivers are current Sprint Cup winners Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch; but for every success story, there were failures that litter the landscape of stock car racing’s unemployment line. Among those on the other end of the spectrum: wonder boy washout Casey Atwood, Erik Darnell, Todd Kluever… the list could go on and on.
But Sorenson isn’t a Sprint Cup winner, nor did he fall flat on his face. What he is, at least at this moment, is a talented driver stuck in racing purgatory, as close to irrelevance as he is to the promised land – and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“As a driver, I feel I have a lot to prove,” he admits. “You want to make sure people know you’re still here and you belong here. [Braun Racing] didn’t win a race last year, but I feel they should’ve won a couple. They’re probably the best standalone team [in the Nationwide Series] that doesn’t have a Cup affiliation, by far. They’re proud of that, and hopefully we can beat some of those Cup guys.”
Bursting onto the scene as a mere 18-year-old, Sorenson didn’t waste any time showing stock car fans the immense talent he displayed prior to starting in NASCAR in the ASA Series. In three ARCA events in 2004, he finished no worse than fourth, including a win at Michigan in just his second start. Three top 10s in five Nationwide Series races set the stage for him to take the next step.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, running the full Nationwide schedule one year later at the age of 19, Sorenson won two races and recorded 12 top fives en route to finishing fourth in points – finishing second in the Rookie of the Year battle behind Carl Edwards. In the process, he became one of only three rookies to ever lead the Nationwide Series points standings, relinquishing the position in mid-June after already doing more than enough to secure a full-time Cup ride with Chip Ganassi the following year.
Yet, whether it be immaturity or a lack of equipment, Sorenson’s success never translated to the next level. In the four seasons following his top-five points effort in NASCAR’s version of Triple-A, he mustered just five top fives and 13 top 10s in the big leagues, all while remaining winless for both Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports while never finishing better than 22nd in the points standings.
Whether or not the added pressure of a teenager receiving the “next Jeff Gordon” label contributed to Sorenson’s Cup Series struggles, it’s something fellow teen sensation and current Braun Racing teammate Vickers can certainly sympathize with, and feels is the reason so many young stars fizzle out so soon.
“It’s not really as much what happens on the racetrack as it is what happens off,” says Vickers, who will effectively split the No. 32 Nationwide seat with Sorenson (he’s scheduled for 10 races, with road-course ringers scheduled for Montreal and Watkins Glen). “In any pro sport, whether it be the Sprint Cup Series or the NFL, there’s so much that takes place and so much that happens; you’re being pulled in so many different directions. It’s about trying to manage all of that more so than driving the cars.
“As a young adult, that’s difficult to manage sometimes, especially without the right guidance and the right mentor. If I could do it all over again, I probably would’ve waited another year in (Nationwide). You can’t ever come too late, but you can come too early.”
“I’m sure a part of him is frustrated, but there should be a part of him that’s excited as well. He’s got an opportunity with a great team in a good car. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out with the economy and rides and different stuff, and maybe it wasn’t the right situation in his Cup program the past couple years, but if he can get back to the Nationwide Series and win races and be competitive, it’ll work out in the long run… somebody’s gonna hire him for another Sprint Cup ride.”
In the meantime, Sorenson plans to run a handful of Cup races for Braun Racing, including this weekend’s Daytona 500 – as long as he qualifies via Thursday’s Duel 150 qualifying races. He’s also free to look at other Cup opportunities as long as it doesn’t conflict with his sponsor, Dollar General.
But for now, Sorenson is focused on returning to victory lane in 2010. He knows the Nationwide Series is the best opportunity to win right now, and he knows wins will force Cup owners to take notice – before they look the other way for good.
“[Sprint Cup] is where I want to be,” Sorenson says. “I’m thankful to get to run in the Nationwide Series this year, but I want to be in Sprint Cup and that’s just the bottom line – everybody does. I just turned 24 and I don’t want to stay in the Nationwide Series for too many years because I feel like I’m good enough for Sprint Cup, and that’s where I want to be.”
Sorenson may know he’s good enough, but 2010 is all about proving it to everyone else.