With Michael Annett out up to two months because of a fractured and dislocated sternum, Richard Petty Motorsports has tabbed Reed Sorenson to pilot the No. 43 NASCAR Nationwide Series car until its regular driver returns.
Sorenson will be in the vehicle this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and will remain in the seat until Annett is healed and cleared to return, RPM said Tuesday in a statement. Annett was injured in a head-on crash in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, and surgeons last week used a metal plate and screws to return his sternum to its natural position.
The recovery time for such an injury is typically two months, but RPM officials are hopeful that Annett might return sooner given that he was in the hospital for less than two days. A 26-year-old Iowa native, Annett was coming off a breakthrough year that included a career-best 17 top-10 finishes and a fifth-place standing in final points.
"It's an unfortunate situation to have to deal with," said Sammy Johns, director of operations at RPM. "We had a lot of momentum from last year, and we want to make sure we don't lose that, and give Michael the best situation possible when he returns."
Aric Almirola wheeled the No. 43 Nationwide car last week in Phoenix, partly because RPM learned only days before the race weekend that Annett would be out, and the organization had the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver's seat at the track. Almirola finished ninth in the event. Now the focus turns to Sorenson, who was a championship contender with Turner Scott Motorsports in 2011 before being released near the end of that season, but has made just eight Nationwide starts since the beginning of last year.
"It's an unfortunate situation for the team and Michael," Sorenson said. "I have been to the hospital to see him, and he will be fine, but it's going to take some time to heal. As a friend for a long time, my initial reaction was concern. I'm glad that he's recovering now."
Sorenson's most recent Nationwide victory came at Road America in 2011. He has started both events this season for Curtis Key's organization, recording a top finish of 18th last weekend at Phoenix.
'"It was very unexpected to get the opportunity to step in," Sorenson said. "The best part is that my friend, Michael, will be cheering for me and the whole 43 Pilot Flying J team. I talked to him about it, and he really wants to see me do well. This is a big deal for me, and I am going to make the most of it."
Team officials say Annett's name will remain above the driver's side window opening, as it did last week at Phoenix. It's been a whirlwind week at RPM, given that Annett was at the shop the Monday before Phoenix for the organization's regular competition meetings, and the severity of his injuries were not discovered until a follow-up visit with doctors the next day.
Annett's injury was a crushing mental blow to a driver and a team that felt they were ready to build off 2012 and take the next step. Now, with Sorenson in the car until Annett returns, the organization is shifting its goals.
"We're going to do the best we can to keep this race team as strong as we can for him, so when he comes back, we can pick that back up," Johns said. "Hopefully, we can still go after an owner's championship, and he can be a big part of that. So that's our goal. ?. The main focus is to keep this team at the level Michael's had it at, so when he gets back we can still be contending for wins and that owner's championship."
"It's not like we're putting in a driver for the rest of the year," crew chief Philippe Lopez added. "Michael is coming back. ? We're just going to try to minimize point damage, call not-too-conservative races because we have nothing to lose, and focus on when Michael's coming back."
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