Is racing for free dedicated enough?
When Reed Sorenson burst onto the NASCAR scene in 2005 with Chip Ganassi Racing, he was but a teenager -- didn't even have fuzz enough on his face to compare to those bushels of Georgia peaches he grew up picking.
He was the poster child for the driver development movement -- talent, raw as Eddie Murphy, plucked from late-model obscurity in Nowhere, Georgia, on the promise he was the next big thing.
But as winless races turned into winless seasons and mediocrity became the norm, questions about his desire as a driver began to surface.
Does he want it bad enough? Is he old enough to grasp what he has? Is he even really that good? And if so, is he willing to commit everything it takes to achieve excellence? Almost from the outset, his sleepy Southern demeanor was an obstacle. And he's been fighting it ever since.
He needn't any longer. The past three months at Richard Petty Motorsports are all the proof you need.
When RPM announced last week a merger with Yates Racing, most considered Sorenson the big loser, since it appeared he was left out of the 2010 driver lineup as a result.
He in fact wasn't. He was already gone by that point.
Multiple RPM sources confirmed to ESPN.com that team executives approached Sorenson during the summer with a pair of options: (1) Race the remainder of the season for no salary; or (2) take a buyout and go away.
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Conflicted, frustrated, shocked and confused, Sorenson chose the former. In NASCAR, out of sight is out of mind. And out of mind is out of work.
"The decision I made was to keep racing. The reason I did that is I thought it would help me find a job next year," Sorenson said. "And any race car driver that has the choice to sit at home or race is probably going to choose to race, unless they're at the end of their career.
"I'm 23 years old. I want to have a long future in the sport. I didn't figure sitting at home was a good option to do that."
Sorenson would not divulge specifics of his agreement with RPM but did say he was never given a true reason for the development.
"They didn't really have much justification for it," he said. "They basically just said, 'This is the deal we have, but you've done nothing wrong. We feel bad.' But it sucked. I don't really get it. It never made sense when it was going down, and it doesn't make sense now.
"I definitely didn't envision them coming to me halfway through this year and saying this. I felt like I was moving to a team where I could make a home and work with new teammates and maybe be there for five years or whatever it might be.
"I didn't even get halfway through the year, and this comes up. Then I was told I haven't done anything wrong at the same time. So that's the most sickening thing about it."
Sorenson's agent, Jeff Dickerson from Mooresville, N.C.-based Motorsports Management, also would neither confirm nor deny that Sorenson was given an ultimatum. He did agree, though, that when he speaks with other team owners and managers about Sorenson's future, the driver's level of desire to compete is often broached.
"If people knew the sacrifices he has made to stay on the racetrack, they wouldn't ask that question anymore," Dickerson said. "He's been a great teammate both on and off the track.
"He stood up for the guys that work on these cars and their families and refuses to let that team be shut down. People think a guy that drafts with you is a good teammate. I think Reed rewrote that definition in this situation."
Sorenson's teammate Kasey Kahne agreed.
"I feel like he's been a great teammate, and as far as performance goes, he's been our second best car for the last two months," Kahne said. "And he has a sponsor behind him with the Air Force, so I have no idea why he won't be part of RPM next year."
Asked for comment for this story, RPM spokesman Drew Brown wrote in an e-mail that "it wouldn't be fair to comment on internal matters relating to Reed's contract. I will say that all of us have had a blast with Reed this season and wish he could be part of us next season, but it's a numbers game."
The Sorenson salary development is just the latest move in a perplexing two-year run for billionaire sports team owner George Gillett in NASCAR. (Remember the Elliott Sadler/A.J. Allmendinger drama in the offseason?) Inconsistency at the top of his team -- now known as RPM -- troubles many in the organization.
Since Gillett purchased majority ownership of Evernham Motorsports in 2007, no fewer than five people have been the go-to guy. In the wake of the Yates merger, former GM Mark McArdle is no longer with the company. No one, it seems, knows where to turn for answers.
"I think Robbie Loomis is supposedly going to be that guy, but I don't think that he is yet," Kahne said Friday. "Is it Foster [Gillett, George Gillett's son]? You can't get anything out of Foster. So it's hard to say who that is."
"I really admire and respect George and everything he has accomplished in his other sports properties," Dickerson said. "Foster has been charged with making real tough decisions and learning the sport at the same time, which can't be easy.
"They definitely need some consistency in that leadership position, and I know that [Yates co-owner] Max Jones is a huge upgrade to the revolving door in that office the past couple years. They just need to let Max do the job. He's the best in the business."
As for Sorenson, he'll use the final 10 races of the season as an audition for 2010. There are few Sprint Cup rides available, so the hope for Sorenson is a part-time Cup program to supplement a full-time Nationwide ride.
"If I have to run full-time Nationwide and part-time Cup to wait until the economy gets better and I get a good full-time ride again, then that would be the best-case scenario," he said. "I just want to race. I don't want to sit around and wait."
His team shares the sentiment -- them against the world. Nobody else much cares about them, they figure, so they might as well dig in and fight for themselves.
"It's weird. I think everybody on my team, the 43 team now, because [RPM] also switched teams, too, and basically gave me A.J.'s old team," he said. "I think they basically feel like they're all in the same boat I am, as far as looking for a job.
"We joke around about it. But I'm the fourth driver and they're the fourth team, and they put us together. We're pretty motivated. It's kind of crazy. We kind of have that feeling like, 'Hey, we're all looking for jobs.' They've already told me I'm definitely out of there. But at the same time, I think it motivates me even more.
"I made a decision. I decided to race. That helped keep all those guys that are on that team employed, at least until the end of this year, where [otherwise] they were probably not going to have a job."
Admirable. And rare. Especially given the circumstances.
So, you predicted Kyle would be in the Chase, and here we are without a Shrub in sight! Oh well, no skin off my nose. I was actually hoping you'd be wrong about that one. Talk about a nail-biter on Saturday! Vickers is in, woohoo! Kyle's in, dang it! Vickers is back in, woohoo and so on!
And, it was good to see Denny win at his home track finally! So, now that we're in the Chase, what's your prediction now? p.s. -- Go Big Red! You being a Hokie fan should get that!
-- Chandra, Papillion, Neb.
We hear from all 12 drivers in the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship as they start the season-ending playoff. Plus, find out which country music singer Dale Jr. would like to date.
OK, OK. I was wrong about Kyle Busch, Chandra. I never dreamed in a million years "The Sheriff" Brian Lee Vickers would run that stout at Richmond. He never had before, which says a lot about him and his team in and of itself. Busch did what he had to do to qualify for the Chase. He didn't go out and dog it. He finished fifth. Vickers had a 17-point advantage over Busch going in and capitalized on it perfectly.
Again, kudos to The Sheriff. He earned more championship points over the last nine races than any other driver in the series, sans Denny Hamlin. He flat got it done.
As for Big Red, I wish you well. But you best strap it on tight, Chandra. Y'all are coming to the Turkey Bowl.
Do you think Mark Martin is starting to feel the itch for his first championship, or is he still gonna downplay it and say he is racing just for fun?
-- Michael, Longville, La.
Martin will downplay the importance of the championship until the day he stops working out, Michael. He refuses -- to the nth degree -- to let himself go there. He will not visualize what it's like to hoist that trophy. The prospect of failure owns him. He doesn't need to exacerbate it by wondering "what if?"
Now that the Chase is set, are the media going to ignore the existence of the rest of the field? I hope not. I believe that this is why many fans stop watching when their driver is not in the Chase.
I think the media owes it to the fans to report on all drivers throughout the Chase, not just the ones running for the championship. I would think that sponsors would feel the same way, especially since they've put up lots of $$ for their driver, Chase or no Chase. What do you think?
-- Susan, Newington, Conn.
I pledge to serve you driver and team information beyond that of those in the Chase, Susan. You have my word. I have the distinct feeling, though, that Kyle Busch won't let us forget about the rest of the field, anyway.
How bout this: For every win, a driver gets 10 points towards the Chase, but they keep their spot in the standings. So, say Tony Stewart wins three races, he has a 30 point lead over the second-place guy. And the number of wins the second place guy has is the number of points he is ahead of the third place guy, and so on. That way the leader keeps the lead, and the guys that are towards the back have a chance but will not be leading the points like Mark Martin. That is BS that Tony is not leadings the points, even though I'm not a No. 14 fan.
-- Steve, Athens, Wis.
Tell that to Jeff Gordon, Steve. Back in '07, his lead was more than 300 points. He had six wins and 30 top-10 finishes that season. He started the Chase 20 points behind Jimmie Johnson. He then averaged a fifth-place finish during the Chase and still lost out to JJ. Cruel. So cruel.
I'm a huge Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan. I understand when reporters rag on Junior when he isn't doing well, but how come when he gets back into his groove and runs well, nobody seems to care??
-- Cathy, Hazleton, Pa.
Um. Well, Cathy, from where I'm sitting, everybody and his momma cares. When that dude takes out the trash, it's news.
That's my time this week. I'm in Manchester, N.H., and I have a minor league baseball diamond outside my hotel window. That's cause for a cold beer. Cheers.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
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