In spite of everything he's accomplished in his career, not much was expected out of Joey Saldana during the 2013 World of Outlaws sprint racing season.
The man who earned the nickname "The Brownsburg Bullet" on his way to claiming 94 career series feature wins and becoming only the fifth driver to win more than 20 races in a World of Outlaws season in 2009 was an afterthought entering the year after he was released by Kasey Kahne Motorsports following the 2012 season.
It wasn't until Jan. 1 - only 45 days before the Feb. 15 season opener in Barberville, Fla. - that he found a seat with Motter Motorsports, a team that was getting back into World of Outlaws racing after running a partial schedule with Jac Haudenschild late in 2012.
"We were kind of the black sheep of the series," Saldana said in a phone interview. "We don't have a lot of resources like many of the other teams, and we're a new team. But we're learning, and we're improving."
Saldana hopes to show Northwest Washington race fans just how much the team has learned and improved on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 30-31, when the World of Outlaws makes its annual two-night visit to Skagit Speedway.
Saldana is expected to be joined by 20-time "King of the Outlaws" champion Steve Kinser, five-time Outlaw champion Donny Schatz, current Kasey Kahne Motorsports drivers Darrin Pitman and Cody Darah and a host of other top national touring drivers, including Kraig Kinser, Craig Dolansky, Lucas Wolfe, Bill Rose, Sammy Swindell and Chad Kemenah, as "The Greatest Show on Dirt" returns to the three-tenth-mile high-banked clay oval in Alger to take on some of the best sprint drivers from around the region.
"I enjoy racing there," Saldana said of Skagit Speedway. "They put on a real good show. It's a cool facility and the people there really support it."
Saldana had to look to new places for support at the start of this season when the 1996 World of Outlaws Rookie of the Year found himself with a ride.
He said he was exited when the opportunity to race the 71M for Dan Motter emerged, though driving for a new team has its challenges.
"It's been a tough transition," Saldana said. "We really started from scratch. Dan had been out of racing World of Outlaws for about 15 years. He committed to the Outlaws about two or three months before the start of the season, so that meant the team only had two or three months to prepare. We started from nothing. They had to buy or build everything - the truck, trailer, cars, engines, tools, you name it."
It also had to find a driver.
Fortunately for Motter, he was able to find an experienced, available wheelman when Saldana hit the market.
"Joey's resume speaks for itself," Motter said in the January press release announcing the move. "He is a proven winner on and off the track."
As expected with a new team, winning has not been all that easy.
In fact, Saldana called just making the first race with a new team "a turning point" for the season, and the team has yet to claim the checkered flag in a feature race during the World of Outlaws' first 69 races this season.
"We need a win," Saldana said. "We've shown we have the speed to do it, the equipment to do it. Now we just need to go out and do it."
The team may be coming to the perfect place to do just that.
Saldana has three career victories at Skagit Speedway with wins in 2002, 2008 and 2009, as he became the first driver since Doug Wolfgang, who won twice in 1978 and one in 1979, to accomplish the feat.
"Our goal is to become the first four-time winner at the track," Saldana said.
The track sets up nicely for an experienced driver like the 41-year-old from Indiana, who is the son of a former sprint and Indy car driver.
"I think Skagit is a driver's track," Saldana said. "It makes a difference what you do in the car as a driver. A lot of these tracks we go to, the driver has some part, but not as big a part as you'd like. This place, you need to know what you're doing and be able to do it to get a good finish."
And while a win would be terrific for Saldana and his 14-man crew, a strong finish is really all he's hoping for.
He enters on the heels of having gotten a couple of those, as he grabbed a pair of top-five finishes Aug. 23-24 at Edmonton, Alberta, and another fifth-place finish a week earlier at Minot, N.D.
Despite those strong runs, Saldana continues to fly under the radar, as Schatz has won three of the past four races to close to within 24 points of Pittman for the series lead.
Saldana enters Skagit sixth in the points, 536 markers behind Pittman, but only nine behind Swindell for fifth.
"We changed cars about a month ago, and we've really started running good," Saldana said. "Our goal is to get Motter Motorsports into the top five in points by the end of the season. We feel that would be pretty good for a team that just started out from scratch. Not a lot of people are expecting a whole lot from us, so that would be pretty impressive. To the 14 guys on this team, running in the top five would be a great, great start."
Friday and Saturday night could mark a great time for Saldana to make a push toward that goal.
The two nights at Skagit kick off a nine-race, 10-day, seven-city tour through Washington, Oregon and California, before the series makes its stretch run to the World of Outlaws World Finals in early November at Concord, N.C.
"We know this is a tough, important stretch for us," Saldana said. "We want to start as strong as possible. If we can go to Skagit and get two strong days in, it could make the rest of the week go a whole lot smoother. ... It's a place I enjoy racing, so I just want to go in there and do my team right with a couple of strong finishes."
Reach David Rasbach at email@example.com or 360-715-2286.
WORLD OF OUTLAWS
When: Friday and Saturday, Aug. 30-31
Site: Skagit Speedway, Alger
Gates open: 5 p.m.
Racing starts: 7 p.m.
Tickets: $35 adults, $25 juniors (7-17) and seniors (65 and older), $10 children 6 and under.
More information: skagitspeedway.com or woosprint.com
Reach DAVID RASBACH at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2271.