MERCED, Calif.—More than 30 matadors came to hone their skills at the bullring located at the Merced County Fairgrounds. Only these were World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car drivers who have an addiction for winning. They were as adept at performing moves on four wheels as matadors are on two feet.
Joey Saldana, driver of the Motter Equipment Fatheadz Eyewear 71M, fresh off of three consecutive days of PitFit Training in Indianapolis, was physically and mentally ready to race.
Saldana and the 71M team were quickest in hot laps with a 10.886-second circuit around the semi-banked, third-mile Merced Speedway oval. Saldana’s time was just a tick off the track record of 10.878 seconds established by Kraig Kinser on March 30, 2012.
In qualifying, Saldana kicked it up a notch, living up to his ‘Brownsburg Bullet’ moniker,and broke the track record, lowering it to 10.823 seconds, notching the team’s first quick time of the young season.
In the first of three heat races Friday evening, the yellow 71M started fourth on the outside of the second row. Two yellows flew in the 10-lap heat. The first caution came out with one lap complete when Matt Mitchell spun collecting Austen Wheatley. The last yellow came out with three to go when the infield tire marker got knocked onto the racing surface. Saldana finished fourth and would have a starting position in the dash.
“This is the narrowest track we race on all season,” said Saldana, “and it makes passing very difficult.”
Prior to the dash the 71M team did a complete engine swap.
“We experienced a top end engine problem during the heat race, and we didn’t want to risk anything in the dash and the feature, so we went ahead and replaced the engine,” said crew chief Davey Whitworth.
After the dash draw, Saldana was consigned to the No. 6 starting position. With throttles buried to the floor, ten drivers challenged to gain position mostly for naught. The top seven finished where they started, including Saldana who finished sixth and would therefore start sixth in the A-Main.
It took only three laps for the leaders to close in on the back of the field in the Feature. There was a brief caution with 31 of 40 laps to go when the infield tire marker got booted onto the Speedway. Saldana was seventh in the single file restart but quickly had his hands full driving three-wide, battling Paul McMahan and Shane Golobic.
Saldana was the only driver in the top 10 who was able to drive the high side and he made some crowd-pleasing moves throughout the feature gaining ground, slipping back, attacking, working the traffic, and ultimately finished seventh.
“I was working the high side as hard as I could and I was gaining ground,” said Saldana. “I was battling for fourth position when I tangled a little with Tim Kaeding who got under me and forced me off the track just enough for the cars I just passed to get back around me again. This track is just too narrow to race side by side and makes passing the lead cars virtually impossible.”
Kyle Larson started on the pole and led the feature until 13 laps into the A-Main when he exploded a right rear tire in turn one and pulled into the work area, passing the lead off to Sammy Swindell who was able to hang on for the win, his third consecutive victory at Merced. Larson finished 14th.
The 71M team wishes all its supporters and followers a very happy Easter holiday.