By MIKE MALLETT
KNOXVILLE, IA – Joey Saldana has earned the right to start on the pole for the 28th edition of the Knoxville 360 Nationals by virtue of his strong performance in Friday night’s qualifying program. Saldana was second quickest in time trials, finished fourth in his heat before crossing the line second in the preliminary 20-lap A-Main.
It would only be natural for anyone that does not have a Knoxville Nationals triumph on their resume to feel some pressure. Even it is the 360 portion, there is still prestige that comes with winning the big one on Saturday night. Even with all of that, Saldana isn’t feeling the heat or worrying about it.
“Right now I have zero pressure,” stated the Brownsburg, Ind., driver. “If I come in here and run last, so be it. I’m going home on Sunday. I’m not traveling with the Outlaws where there is pressure, pressure, pressure. This Kevin Rudeen team has given me a great platform to do what I love to do and not have to kill myself on the road. I can’t thank him enough for that.”
He may not be feeling the pressure, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to win. He’s just putting it all in perspective.
“I still have the drive to win,” he said. “I don’t want to come out here and look like a tool box. That would be a big waste of time.”
Saldana is no stranger to starting at the front of the Knoxville Nationals as he’s been the high point man before. Not for the 360 portion, but the granddaddy finale for the 410’s. He knows scoring the most points on qualifying night and winning on Saturday are two different things. He’s had Nationals glory slip away before. He knows what to expect come feature time.
“I’ve done that before though and finished second,” he said of winning the pole. “The only difference is Donny Schatz isn’t here. I’ve been beat by Donny three times here. I’ve ran third once and fifth another time. We definitely had shots at winning the big race here. As a driver you don’t get those opportunities often. It’s on my shoulders to get it done and I didn’t.”
Saturday night is all about putting together 25 mistake free laps. If you relent or hesitate for only an instant everything can change. Things happen quick at Knoxville. On Friday night Saldana led laps four through 10, but one bad decision cost him the win.
“Just because you have the car, the equipment and everything you got to put every lap down,” stated Saldana. “If you don’t do that you are going to get beat. Tonight I didn’t put every lap down and I got beat. Hopefully I can learn from that and get my car like it was tonight where I can run the top or bottom because that is what you are going to need to do.”
On this night it was lapped traffic that proved to be the equalizer for Saldana. He got caught behind a lapped car on the bottom of the speedway in turns one and two which forced him to slide up the track to the cushion. This line change was enough to open the door as he lost all of his momentum.
“Guys weren’t running the bottom that good, or the other lapped cars that is and I was getting through them really well so I just went for it,” commented Saldana. “I was thinking they were going to slip up from the middle off like everyone else was and them guys stuck it well. I had to check up and move. A 360 has to be wound up here. I just lost momentum and got beat.”
Saldana ended up giving way and getting beat as he put it by Carson Macedo driving Jason Johnson’s No. 41. There was no shame in that as the team had speed all night long. He also understood the significance of the moment.
“If you are going to beat right now, that is the car you want to get beat by,” cited Saldana. “Jason Johnson is riding with that team. Carson Macedo is more than deserving to be in a car of that quality. That is what you get when you put quality together, you get wins. Hopefully this team can compete with them tomorrow and have a shot of winning this thing.”
Whether he is able to get the win or not what be proven until Saturday night, but he is in the best position possible for that to happen. Now it’s on him to finally break through and finish the job.