WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) — The back of Reed Sorenson’s red fire suit is emblazoned with “I’m lovin’ it” in bright yellow script, the catchy slogan of one of the sponsors of the No. 43 Dodge he drives for Richard Petty Motorsports.

And though he’s mired deep in the Sprint Cup standings and already thinking about next year, the slogan matches his demeanor. Sorenson is always ready with a smile, even when confronted about his struggles to make the grade at NASCAR’s top level.

“I’m still enjoying myself and doing the best I can,” the 23-year-old said. “I’ve just got to keep digging.”

Especially after Monday’s race at Watkins Glen International. Sorenson was sideswiped by Dale Earnhardt Jr. when the brakes on Earnhardt’s No. 88 failed, sending both cars into a massive gravel trap and spoiling another day. Sorenson finished 31st, the 17th time in 22 starts he’s failed to crack the top 20.

Ninth-place finishes in the season-opening Daytona 500 (after qualifying 34th) and at Indianapolis, the seventh at tiny Bristol, and the fourth at Dover almost seem like aberrations when you look at the big picture.

And Richard Petty looks at the big picture.

“The deal is he’s done good in some of the races, really, really good, and he’s had bad luck,” Petty said. “If you took all his disappointments, or our disappointments, away with the car, the accidents, whatever, then we would be looking at him completely different. It’s not how you run, it’s how you finish. That’s what you look at. It’s really hard to gauge it when the cars don’t do so good.”

Though Sorenson is fewer than 100 points behind teammates AJ Allmendinger (24th) and Elliott Sadler (26th), the fourth RPM car, the No. 9 driven by Kasey Kahne, is eighth and a good bet to make the Chase for the Cup championship, something Petty has not accomplished as an owner since the new points system began five years ago.

“We’re not where we want to be, hell no. But we know that we’re better than where we’re at,” said Sorenson, a native of Peachtree City, Ga., who is in his first year with RPM. “That just makes you want to try harder and try to finish out the year with some strong runs. There’s some good places we’re going back to that we can definitely run really strong at.”

Sorenson will do so with a new man atop his pit box after RPM shuffled crew chiefs. Starting this weekend, Mike Shiplett will switch to the 44 of Allmendinger and Sammy Johns will move from the 44 to the 43.

“Really, what we’re trying to do is make sure that we’ve got the right people in the right place,” Petty said. “We figure if we go ahead and do it now, then it’s going to give us 12 or 15 races to figure out who goes where so that when we start next year we’ve got stronger teams than what we’ve got now.

“… We’ve got to get the best out of our people. Look, we’ve got the cars, we’ve got the drivers, all we’ve got to do is put it together.”

Sorenson’s performance the remainder of the year might be a test drive to see whether he can make some solid progress. Rumors began swirling last week when RPM announced it had asked former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve to be on standby at Watkins Glen because Sorenson had inhaled carbon monoxide during the previous race at Pocono.

The roller-coaster ride of the 43 has been tough on the Sorenson family.

“They were’t even racing anybody at Watkins Glen,” Sorenson’s dad, Brad, lamented. “Michael Waltrip took us out at Pocono. He had a broken track bar at Sonoma when he was running 14th or something. How do you break a track bar? There’s been so much stuff that I don’t know where you put the finger at. It makes me sick because I know he’s a good racer.”

Always has been.

Sorenson was 6 when he started and his dad, who owns his a construction business, quit racing because he couldn’t afford to race, too. Sorenson went on to set 15 track records in Quarter Midgets and won the 1997 national championships. He notched 84 wins in 183 starts in Legends cars and was named American Speed Association rookie of the year in 2003 at age 17.

He won in just his 11th Nationwide start, and two years ago won the Cup pole at Indianapolis, leading the first 16 laps and finishing fifth. His career-best Cup finish was a third at Atlanta in 2007.

“We’ve raced all our lives and had good success,” Brad Sorenson said. “It’s a very difficult time. Right now, you’re just trying to figure out how to keep a job. I think he’s worried. Anybody that says they’re not is straight out lying.”

Still, Reed Sorenson remains on an even keel.

“Whatever they choose to do will be fine. The teams are pretty equal as far as the level of talent,” he said. “I think we’re at the point where we can start heading in the other direction, and I’m looking forward to next year.

“I want to be in the top 10, be one of those guys that’s in the top 10 every year and competitive. I’ve just got to get in the right spot.”

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