Stories

NICK SCHWIEN • Hays Daily News Joe Cleveland powers his modified through turn two May 31 at Salina Speedway.

Smokin' Joe living up to nickname

By NICK SCHWIEN

nschwien@dailynews.net

The nickname for Joe Cleveland couldn't fit more perfectly.

Smokin' Joe has shown a flare for the dramatic the last two races at Salina Speedway, and he's hoping that trend continues entering racing action Friday night at Salina and Saturday night at RPM Speedway in Hays.

Cleveland knows his way around the 3âÑ8-mile track in Salina. He's had numerous wins there in the past and is the defending track champion in the modified class.

But Cleveland is smoking the competition lately, rattling off back-to-back wins the last two Fridays.

What's made it more impressive is Cleveland has started deep in the field both nights -- including an 18th-place starting spot last week.

"I've never been a fan of it, but that's the way IMCA does it,"  Cleveland said about the starting order for feature races.

"I like the draw-redraws. For the fans, though, it makes it a lot more interesting."

Since Cleveland has a good point average from high finishes in feature events at Salina, he starts near the middle of the pack each night when transferring from his heat races.

Friday, though, it was unusually deep. But that didn't stop the veteran driver, who's been racing in the modified division for 19 years.

And it was a bit of a replay from the week earlier. Brian Knoell held down the front spot late in the race, only to see Cleveland work his magic.

On May 31, Knoell led from lap nine to lap 18, when Cleveland smoked by him on the backstretch to take the lead -- and the win -- after starting 10th.

A week later, Cleveland was at it again, only this time he had to start deeper in the field.

He worked his way through the competition, then set his sights on Knoell -- who was in the top spot again. Late in the race, Cleveland bolted out of turn two to get by the front two cars for the lead.

"With about two to go, I passed first and second at the same time, got underneath them," he said.

Another win was his, the third this season at Salina for Cleveland. He's the only modified driver so far this season to win multiple races at Salina.

"I've had back-to-back wins before," Cleveland said. "In 2006, we won Minneapolis for $1,000 to win, then won a $2,000 to win show in Salina the next night. But I didn't start as high up as I did those nights. I've won a lot of races, but not two in a row from that deep."

That's impressive in itself, especially since Cleveland has been racing in some fashion for the last 22 years.

He's also making things look easy in a car that's nearly a decade old. The chassis he's using was built in 2004, and he started racing it in 2005.

"I know what to do to it," Cleveland said about part of the reason he's been so successful the past few years.

If he makes a transfer spot out of his heat Saturday at RPM, Cleveland could be starting much higher than he has at Salina due to a few DNFs at Hays this year.

That could mean trouble to the rest of the field.

"We should be able to start up front there,"  said Cleveland, who finished second at Hays in the April 5 feature. " ... We have to take advantage of the clean air up there."