NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle – Sometimes talent is not enough

Imagine being 18 years old, having just been running in Legends cars and ASA Late Models and now you’re going to start a Sprint Cup race. You went from winning 84 races in the Inex Legends and finishing fourth in the national ASA points to running in the top series of NASCAR in just two years. Sound like fiction? That is where Reed Sorenson was in the Fall of 2005 when he started his first race in a Cup car in Atlanta. Sorenson was the poster child for the NASCAR dream.

Fast forward six years, 162 Cup races and 160 Nationwide Series starts. At age 25, Sorenson is a NASCAR veteran…and, with five races left in the 2011 Nationwide season, despite being third in that series’ driver points, he is looking for a job–any job–to simply survive somewhere within the upper echelon of a sport he was supposed to dominate.

2005 was when the youth movement was in full swing in NASCAR, and Chip Ganassi Racing was at the forefront. Sterling Marlin was being ousted from his Ganassi-owned ride because Coors Light wanted a younger spokesperson for their brand; David Stremme was sliding into that seat. Casey Mears moved over to fill in the No. 42 car that Jamie McMurray was leaving to head over to Roush Racing, opening up a spot to fill in the No. 41 Target ride. As a result, Ganassi had tabbed Reed Sorenson to make a couple of starts at the end of the 2005 season before taking over the ride full-time in 2006. Sorenson was 18 years old, the new minimum for NASCAR’s Cup Series. A soft-spoken Georgian, barely able to buy a lottery ticket had seemingly pulled one just like that.

Except it never quite worked out for Sorenson in the Cup Series (in 162 starts, Sorenson had just five top-5 and 15 top-10 finishes), and so in 2011, Sorenson moved full-time to the No. 32 in the Nationwide Series for the brand-new Turner Motorsports organization. He had run for the No. 32 in the past on a part-time basis when the team was still under the Braun Racing banner. As the year began, it looked as though Sorenson was getting the start he missed out on by jumping straight into the Cup Series, a move which rarely works. Just ask Casey Atwood, who dropped off the NASCAR map completely after a 75-race stint in the Cup ranks which brought Atwood a pole, a top 5 and four top 10’s in just over two full seasons. Atwood hasn’t competed for a full season in a NASCAR national touring division since 2002.

Unlike Atwood, though, Sorenson was being given a second chance, and as 2011 kicked off, he appeared to be making the most of it, scoring a win and 18 top-10 finishes in 29 races, leading the points for several weeks early on before slipping to a solid third. It looked as though Sorenson was finally going to put up numbers to match the talent that his car owners all saw in him.

But behind the scenes at Turner Motorsports, it appears that things were not so rosy. According to one source, Sorenson has not been paid for his driving duties this year as per his contract. Turner, who pledged in January, “I didn’t just show up with a checkbook. I have no intention of being that kind of owner. We’re here to work, enjoy, and learn and earn everyone’s respect,” is rarely in the race shop these days, according to at least one employee, and deep cuts have been slowly gouging away at the team, culminating in Sorenson’s immediate release from the No. 32.

“Turner was coming in, made the acquisition… promised quarterly reviews, all this stuff. I haven’t seen Turner since that day. Seen him blow by three times, sneaks into his office and then leaves,” says that same employee, who did not wish to be identified. “We haven’t talked to him, haven’t seen him, not one performance review since he bought this company out.”

“Yesterday, we all had to go in and sign a piece of paper saying that we understood Turner would lay off 33% of their workforce. [I have] been getting paid, but they have eliminated the 401K; when [I] get paid, they don’t list the hours on [my] paycheck. They have you work 50 hours a week, then 30 hours the next and they’re not paying overtime as it should be.”

It seems that things haven’t been as they seemed for several months at Turner, who began 2011 with high hopes for four Nationwide and three Camping World Truck Series teams. Although Sorenson was third in Nationwide points, with teammates Justin Allgaier and Jason Leffler in fifth and sixth, respectively, money was becoming tight. Leffler was given his release following this season as sponsor Great Clips will be reassigned (most likely to Allgaier’s team) in 2012, and Sorenson got his release this week, to be replaced for the immediate future by former series champion Brian Vickers. The sponsor of the No. 32, Dollar General will also leave the team, lured away by Kyle Busch Motorsports and the promise of a Cup-funded program and a high-profile driver, spelling even more bad news for the series’ largest independent team.

Another storm brewing under the surface at Turner Motorsports may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for Sorenson. Sorenson has been quite vocal about the quality of the equipment he’s been receiveing, openly criticizing his cars at times. While that may have been an attempt at motivating his team, word is that Steve Turner didn’t appreciate it. Sorenson and Allgaier have also had a running rivalry bordering on an open feud for much of the year between the two, which culminated in some on-track incidents, mangled racecars and hard feelings. Perhaps this led to Turner’s ultimate decision to let Sorenson go, though it doesn’t seem to account for the paychecks that were not forthcoming.

The real reason for Sorenson’s termination is ultimately between him and Turner. Was it because Turner couldn’t afford to or didn’t want to pay his young driver? Was it because of Sorenson’s criticism of the team or his rivalry with his teammate? Was it a last ditch effort to impress the sponsor that is already leaving? Was it that Sorenson has the reputation for sometimes sitting on his laurels in a race and stroking for points? That he lost the points lead? Those are all theories, but in the end, it was probably the perfect storm of events that cut short what could have been Sorenson’s last chance at NASCAR redemption.

Sorenson was obviously a talented driver in quarter midgets, Legends and even ASA Late Models. Once he made it to the Cup series it was rather apparent that, while he had moments of brilliance, he didn’t have what it took to be a star. After turning his career around for the first part of 2011, Sorenson might be lucky enough to catch on with another Nationwide team for the rest of the year and, if he does well for them, maybe get a ride for a year or two. If not, there is a very good chance that we’ve seen the last of Reed Sorenson on the national touring series of NASCAR because sometimes talent just isn’t enough.

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