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Friday, January 05, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Reed Sorenson

Reed Sorenson Age 20
0 wins, 1 top 5, 5 top 10's, 11 top 15's
Points rank: 24th Driver Rating: 68.4
#41 Target Dodge Crew Chief Jimmy Elledge

For a 20 year old rookie with one previous career Cup start, Reed Sorenson's rookie season was pretty normal. Glimpses of his talent blended together with his inexperience for a top 25 points finish. He crashed often (12 times, 4 DNF's), but he also showed why he is a top driving prospect. The biggest thing Sorenson lacks is experience and seat time. A busy 2006 schedule running both full Cup and Busch schedules helped accelerate his learning curve. After winning two Busch races in 2005, last season was a mild disappointment. He finished 10th in points, with 5 top 5's and 14 top 10's. Although it wasn't the season the team anticipated, it was still valuable seasoning.

On the Cup side, Sorenson started slowly, mostly staying out of the way in the first three races. In the fourth race he scored his first top ten at his home track, Atlanta. Strong runs continued at unfriendly tracks like Martinsville (12th) and Darlington (11th) displayed his talent. In between were bumpy runs at Phoenix, Talladega and Richmond.

The combination of Sorenson and crew chief Jimmy Elledge worked well in season one. Prior to Sorenson, Elledge helped Casey Mears improve for three years. One trait of Elledge is his willingness to take risks. At Michigan in a race threatened by rain, Elledge gambled on track position keeping Sorenson out during the final pit stop. The gamble worked as rain shortened the race after 129 laps, giving Sorenson his first top 5. It wasn't a complete theft. Sorenson ran in the top ten during the latter part of the race, but the gamble did leapfrog several cars to improve his finish.

They gambled again at the Labor Day weekend race at Fontana. Sorenson nearly won the race before running out of fuel one lap short, finishing 21st. The move still made sense for a rookie simply trying to get experience and finish races. His best race of the season came at the second Dover race. Sorenson led 39 laps and was running fourth until he again ran out of gas with two laps left. He wound up eleventh, but his 112.5 driver rating was fifth best. The finish also capped a very solid seven race segment where his average finish was 17th. It was a good cross-section of the Cup scene. Races at Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, California, Richmond, Loudon and Dover run the range of difficulty and variety.

Unfortunately like every rookie not named Hamlin, Sorenson hit a rough patch to end the year. After Dover he finished 43rd, 39th, 36th, 35th and 29th. He also drew Dale Jarrett's ire at Lowe's for multiple incidents. As a result Jarrett donated pieces of his wrecked car to Sorenson's hauler.

Looking ahead to 2007 Sorenson will continue to improve with experience. Having established a notebook allows Elledge to improve setups the second time around. Sorenson gets a new teammate to replace the departing Mears. Juan-Pablo Montoya comes to NASCAR after an impressive open-wheel career. Montoya might bring a lot of help for Sorenson. His impressive resume includes championships, premiere wins and experience in several of the world's best racing series. Montoya's credibility will carry more weight when giving feedback to Ganassi. It's not that Ganassi doesn't recognize the need for improvement, but hearing it from a world class driver as opposed to a youngster like Sorenson or David Stremme has more impact.

The biggest question is still about the cars. Can Ganassi improve the equipment and enable Sorenson to run up front consistently? That will determine how successful Sorenson's second season goes. Ganassi made some changes in management during the season. If the changes work, it will help all three cars. Progress could be difficult with cloudy future of Dodge. As the year progresses, don't be surprised to hear rumors about Ganassi moving to Toyota.

Like many rookies Sorenson's weaknesses were plate tracks and short tracks. This is the type of track that sometimes even patience isn't enough. It takes time earning respect from veterans. Sorenson's strength is easily the intermediate tracks. All of his top tens came at 1.5 mile or 2 mile speedways. The results didn't show, but he also ran well at Loudon and Dover. He is scaling back his Busch schedule to focus on the Cup side in 2007. This is probably a good move, especially with the new Car of Tomorrow to worry about. Since that car won't run in the Busch series, the seat time won't transfer as directly.

Sorenson has the potential to win races, but needs consistency first. If Ganassi's equipment improves Sorenson is capable of 2 or 3 top fives. His weekly performance is still uneven, but he will eventually compete for wins and Chase berths in the coming years. A top 20 finish, something he almost accomplished in 2006, is a definite possibility.

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