The struggles of Sorenson have matched those of the Open teams he’s driven for in the aftermath of NASCAR’s new Charter system. At this time last year, Sorenson attempted to drive Hillman Racing’s #40 CRC Brakleen Chevrolet into the 500 field, but finished 21st of 24 drivers and missed the show. He returned five rounds later at Martinsville to fill out the short Cup fields in a second Premium Motorsports car, and for the rest of the season finished no better than 22nd. The lone highlight of the season came at Talladega in the fall, where he paced Round 1 of qualifying, but ended up 32nd after the team decided to make post-qualifying adjustments during the race.
This year, Sorenson and his new-bodied 2018 Toyota returned to the superspeedway in an unsponsored Open team. The #55’s Charter, previously leased to HScott Motorsports, had now been sold to Furniture Row Racing to give rookie Erik Jones a guaranteed starting spot in the team’s new second car. This again made qualifying critical as the top two Open teams would be locked in on speed. Sorenson put up the 38th-fastest time in opening practice, besting three Open teams, and in qualifying ran a lap of 187.332mph.
The time trial lap ranked him 37th of the 42 drivers, third among the Open teams, and just three-tenths of a second behind Elliott Sadler for the second locked-in spot. Thus, Sorenson would have to race his way into the 500 field, or count on the locked-in cars of Sadler and Brendan Gaughan to race in.
Sorenson’s lap placed him 19th on the 21-car grid for Thursday’s Duel Race 1, but a transmission change sent him to the back of the field. This proved critical because the Open team he needed to beat was waiting for him.
Qualifying last in the field for Race 1 was Corey LaJoie. The son of two-time XFINITY Series champion Randy, LaJoie secured a ride in BK Racing’s #83 Dustless Blasting Toyota, previously driven by Matt DiBenedetto. When BK leased the #83’s Charter to TriStar Motorsports’ #72 driven by Cole Whitt, LaJoie was unable to lock himself in on speed and needed to race his way in. By the end of Lap 1, LaJoie had passed Sorenson, who was now 1.8 seconds behind the leaders.
On Lap 3, Sorenson passed the black #75 Beard Oil Chevrolet of Brendan Gaughan. Locked into his first 500 field since 2004 on his qualifying speed, Gaughan lay in the back for much of the race, apparently intending to save his car for Sunday. Gaughan lost touch with the lead pack and was 2.263 seconds behind the rest of the field by Lap 8. He held the spot until Lap 12, when Joey Logano made an unscheduled stop for a vibration caused by a loose right-front wheel. The stop cost Logano a lap. On the 20th circuit, Logano worked over teammate Brad Keselowski to get his lap back, but when Kyle Busch rooted him out of the draft, Logano settled for the Lucky Dog on Lap 27.
Under the caution, the last spot bounced between Matt DiBenedetto, whose #32 EJ Wade Construction Ford was too fast on pit road, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who pitted his #17 Fastenal Ford after everyone else. When the green flew on Lap 31, Brendan Gaughan had again taken the last spot, and was once again one second behind the field the next time by. On Lap 50, Gaughan looked to nail down the first last-place finish for the #75 in the history of the Duels when trouble broke out ahead of him.
Sorenson parlayed pit strategy to try and lock himself into the field. A fuel-only spot lifted him to the 7th spot, six cars ahead of LaJoie, and though he made light contact with the wall off Turn 1, the #55 managed to stay with the leaders. On the 50th lap, LaJoie hadn’t moved forward, but Sorenson had slipped back to 13th, directly in front of the #83. With ten laps remaining, the battle for the 39th spot in the 500 was set to heat up. With a big push through the tri-oval from Kyle Busch, LaJoie looked to the middle lane, trying to make it three wide between Sorenson and Paul Menard. But the hole closed and the two Open cars made contact. Sorenson collided with Menard, then slid head-on into the inside wall.
While the new stretch of SAFER barrier added after Kyle Busch’s terrible XFINITY wreck saved Sorenson from injury, his spot in the 500 was no longer in his hands. Frustrated, he had to wait until the end of Race 2 to see if his speed would be good enough to still get the backup car into the show. Unfortunately for him, D.J. Kennington’s #96 Lordco / Castrol Toyota edged the locked-in Open car of Elliott Sadler in Race 2, bumping Sorenson from the race. Kennington’s effort secured the two-time Pinty’s Series champion his first Daytona 500 spot in just his second Cup start. Kennington will start 30th on Sunday.
Menard’s damaged #27 Menards / Peak Chevrolet managed to complete repairs in enough time to rejoin the race, one lap down at the finish, locking up 37th in the field. Gaughan came home 19th, the final car one lap down, and will start 39th on Sunday. LaJoie avoided damage in the tangle with Sorenson and Menard to finish 18th, one spot behind BK Racing teammate Joey Gase. LaJoie will start 35th while Gase starts 33rd.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #55 in the Can-Am Duels since February 12, 1976, when Canadian driver John Banks’ #55 Banks Alignment Dodge crashed after 2 laps of Duel Race 1. It was Banks’ only 500 attempt after three previous starts, including a last-place run in the 50-car field at Talladega in 1975.
*This was Sorenson’s first last-place finish in the Can-Am Duels, but the second in a row for Premium Motorsports. Last year, Cole Whitt trailed Race 1 after a late-race crash. This year, Michael Waltrip, the beneficiary of a Charter purchased from HScott Motorsports’ defunct #15 team, will keep Premium Motorsports in Sunday’s field. The two-time 500 winner will start 32nd on Sunday in his 784th and final Cup start.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
21) #55-Reed Sorenson / 48 laps / crash
20) #27-Paul Menard / 59 laps / running
19) #75-Brendan Gaughan / 60 laps / running
18) #83-Corey LaJoie / 60 laps / running
17) #23-Joey Gase / 60 laps / running