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For a substitute, Annett’s team calls on a friend

March 09, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Michael Annett

Sorenson will fill in for Annett in No. 43 car until the Nationwide Series star recovers

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LAS VEGAS -- In the hospital following his head-on crash in the Nationwide Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway, Michael Annett had a request for his friend Reed Sorenson -- to feel a point on Annett’s sternum. No one realized it at the time, but the Richard Petty Motorsports driver had suffered a fracture of his breastbone, one piece of which was sticking above the other.

“I remember driving home the next day,” Sorenson said, “and thinking, ‘That sure did look weird.’”

Sorenson found out why a few days later, when he called Annett to make dinner plans and discovered his friend would need surgery to repair a sternum that had been broken and dislocated in the accident. Recovery would take up to two months, meaning Annett would have to step out of a car that finished fifth in final Nationwide points a season ago. For a replacement, there was one natural choice -- the driver with whom Annett plays golf, who visited him in the Daytona Beach hospital after the accident, and was there in North Carolina after he underwent surgery.

"He knows this is an awesome opportunity for me. That makes me feel good."

-- Reed Sorenson, on filling in for his friend Michael Annett

Which is why Sorenson found himself wearing an RPM golf shirt this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and preparing to strap into a No. 43 car that still has Annett’s name stenciled above the door. RPM Sprint Cup driver Aric Almirola piloted the car last week, because Annett’s injury was discovered only days earlier and Almirola’s seat was already in Phoenix. But for a longer-term substitute, the team turned to a four-time Nationwide race winner and the one driver Annett would most want to see take over his race car.

“He wants me to succeed,” Sorenson said. “He knows this is an awesome opportunity for me. That makes me feel good, and I think it helps with the guys on the team, too. Because they know he’s supporting it, and he’ll be right there rooting us on.”

Annett and Sorenson, two drivers who share the same management company and are only months apart in age, became friends through racing. The Wednesday before Phoenix, Sorenson called Annett to discuss dinner plans when he learned his friend -- who had visited the doctor earlier in the day, hoping to get cleared for the race weekend -- instead needed surgery the next morning using screws and a metal plate to return the pieces of his fractured sternum to their natural position. Sorenson visited the hospital the next afternoon, and the two chatted about everything but racing.

What they didn’t talk about was the fact that Annett would be out of the car for several weeks, a crushing blow to a driver who had hoped to build on a breakthrough 2012 season. Annett was out of the hospital quicker than expected, and RPM officials are hopeful of a return sooner than anticipated, but during the interim the team would still requite a replacement -- and everyone had a very clear idea of who that would be.

“With Michael and I being friends, I was hoping I’d get this chance, but you never know until everything’s done,” said Sorenson, who competed in the first two Nationwide events for Curtis Key’s team. “We got everything figured out, and it was pretty exciting.”

For Sorenson, it’s a bittersweet situation -- on one hand, he’s stepping into a car his injured friend has left vacant, on the other he’s in a premier Nationwide ride for the first time since his surprise release from Turner-Scott Motorsports with five races remaining in a 2011 season in which he contended for the series title. Since then Sorenson has made only limited Nationwide starts, primarily for smaller, underfunded teams. He’s also competed in a number of Sprint Cup events in cars at the back of the field.

“It’s just tough out there,” said Sorenson, whose last victory was at Road America in 2011. “To get rides in good equipment is hard to do these days. It doesn’t matter if it’s Trucks, Nationwide, or Cup, it’s hard to come by. I’m very thankful for this opportunity and to be able to drive for RPM .… It’s weird, because maybe it hasn’t hit me fully yet. Once we get out there and get going, it will be nice. But this is definitely the best opportunity I’ve had in a year and a half. Unexpected, but good.”

Annett’s race team, which after last season had hopes of contending for race wins and a series championship, was as devastated by the injury as their driver. Crew chief Philippe Lopez can now take some solace in knowing he’ll have the same person in the seat until Annett’s return. He also expects a smooth transition, given the 27-year-old Sorenson’s experience at NASCAR’s national levels.

“For a guy who has as much experience as him, it’s easy to jump in a good car and go,” Lopez said. “It’s harder to jump in a not-so-good car -- you’ve got to figure out what they’ve got going on. It’s a good car. He’ll do good in it.”

Even so, Annett’s injury has forced the No. 43 team to readjust its preseason goals -- with the driver’s title out of the picture, the best it can hope for now is to vie for the owners’ crown and perhaps pick off a race victory using aggressive strategy calls. Sorenson hasn’t talked with Annett about how disappointed his friend must be over it all. He doesn’t need to.

“I know he was excited. I know all the guys on this team were excited to pick up where they left off last year, and then in the first race of the year something like this happens,” Sorenson said. “But he’s smart enough to know it’s something you can’t help. We haven’t gotten into that conversation of this kind of ruining his season in terms of points and things like that. But he’s excited about doing what he can when he comes back, and winning a race, and there’s still owners’ points, too. So he’ll be ready to come back.”

Annett may return to the track next week at Bristol, though only as a spectator. Until he’s healed enough to return to competition, it will be Sorenson in the car with Annett’s name over the door -- and secure in the knowledge that his friend is comfortable seeing him in the seat.

“I’ve never really had to deal with it, but no race car driver wants to see their car out there without them in it, and coming into this weekend he’s just been real supportive,” Sorenson said. “I think he wants to see me run well. He cares about me as a friend, and knows this is a great opportunity for me. A week ago I didn’t think I’d have an opportunity like this. He’s happy for me and he wants me to run well, which means a lot, because he is the driver of this car. It’s nice to have the guy who’s sitting out cheering for you, instead of being angry he’s not in the car.”

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