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Saldana and Kahne a Potent Combination in WoO
Second-generation sprint car driver Joey Saldana and the Kasey Kahne Racing team are working hard to dispel the myth of a "sophomore jinx."
Heading into the May 25 Eckerd Outlaw Showdown at The Dirt Track @ Lowe's Motor Speedway, the second-year driver/team combination has established itself as a championship contender on the grueling World of Outlaws sprint car circuit.
"I'd say the first year we definitely proved we are capable of running competitively with the Outlaws," said Saldana, who won seven races in 2006 and finished third in the series points standings. "But my team wanted to do better-you always want to do better."
Kasey Kahne, who honed his racing skills in sprint cars before ascending to NASCAR NEXTEL Cup stardom, hired Saldana, a 35-year-old veteran from Brownsburg, Ind., prior to the 2006 season in an effort to stabilize his young sprint car operation.
"When Kasey originally hired me, he had gone through several drivers and I think he was looking for someone who had raced a little longer,"
Saldana explained. "I think he was looking for a driver who could be the backbone; to help his guys stay motivated, stay together and not get too upset. It's easy to get offline from where you need to be during a 100-race schedule."
Unlike most drivers who start in lower divisions and work their way up, Saldana launched his career behind the wheel of a sprint car in 1989. He earned the World of Outlaws' rookie-of-the-year title in 1996 and has been barnstorming the nation's dirt tracks for more than a decade. He has 27 World of Outlaws A-feature victories and is a two-time winner of the prestigious Kings Royal at Ohio's Eldora Speedway.
Following on the heels of last year's success, Saldana drove Kahne's No. 9 Open Joist/Mopar/Team ASE sprint car to five victories during the first three months of the season.
"This year, the team has definitely stepped the program up a bunch and its goals are higher than seven wins and third in points. We definitely have to do better," Saldana said.
Even though he is nearly 10 years older than his car owner, Saldana has a great deal of respect for Kahne and the operation he has assembled.
"It's very hard to get the right group of people to work together. Kasey, for as young as he is, has definitely done a great job finding the right people, putting them in place and getting what he wants out of his guys," Saldana said. "I am extremely honored to drive his car."
Despite the demands of his high-profile role in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup ranks, Kahne is very active in managing his open-wheel teams.
"The time that he does get to himself, he puts toward his racing teams. A lot of guys don't want to sacrifice that time because they don't have that much," Saldana said. "For us, the only hindrance is not only do we have Joey Saldana fans, but we have Kasey Kahne fans, No. 9 fans and Mopar fans, and you don't want to disappoint them.
"It's a weird situation, but I think Kasey sacrifices more than all of us because of his time commitments and what he has to give up to make all of this happen."
After fielding his own cars and driving for several other owners, Saldana knows he's found a unique situation with Kasey Kahne Racing.
"It would be hard for me to go to another team because of where I am with Kasey. As long as you are doing a good job and everyone is working hard, he provides you with what it takes to win races," Saldana said. "My goal is to stay good enough that Kasey will keep me around where I can be a part of his team. I definitely don't want to leave his organization because it is getting bigger and better every year."
Among those expected to battle with Saldana for the $10,000 first-place prize in the May 25 Eckerd Outlaw Showdown are 20-time World of Outlaws champion Steve Kinser, defending series titlist Donny Schatz and 2001 champ Danny Lasoski.
The late model stock cars of the Goodyear Fastrak Challenge will join the sprint cars during the action-packed program when racing begins at 7:30 p.m.
Reserved seats for the Eckerd Outlaw Showdown on Friday night, May 25, are $25 for adults and $10 for children ages 12 and under. They can be purchased by calling the speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS or online at www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.