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Team owner Bob Bruncati experienced his goal of winning the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championship in 2009 with Jason Bowles as his driver. When Bowles left the West to pursue opportunities in other NASCAR series, it left Bruncati to rebuild his championship team.
It's now Luis Maritnez Jr. in the familiar No. 6 Sunrise Ford car. He has a teammate in fellow rookie Josh Combs and they serve as the foundation and the future for Bruncati’s team.
Bruncati said he had high expectations heading into the 2010 West Series season, even with a pair of rookies as his drivers. Martinez has emerged as the top rookie at the midway point of the season.
He leads Combs, his Sunrise Ford Racing teammate, by two points in the West Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings after six races.
When asked if he thinks Martinez has met his expectations, Bruncati said yes – for a rookie.
“He’s probably farther along than Jason was three years ago,” Bruncati said. “You can’t compare a rookie to a seasoned veteran.”
Martinez invites the challenge though. He admits the first half of the season has been unsettling, with its share of ups and downs. He said he is proud of what his team has accomplished so far, but there is a tremendous amount of room for improvement.
“It’s been a tough journey,” said Martinez, the 20-year-old driver for Bruncati’s No. 6 Sunrise Ford team. “We’re only halfway through, but the second half is going to be a little bit easier just because I’ve had some time with the team already, we’ve talked and analyzed the first half of the year. We have a pretty good plan for the second half, to go out there and really start performing well.”
One reason Martinez likes his chances in the second half of the season is because of the road courses the West visits.
The next race on the schedule is Sunday’s Bi-Mart Salute to the Troops 125 at Portland International Raceway in Oregon. Martinez won a Formula TR 1600 Pro Series race at the 1.98-mile road course in 2006.
“It’s been a while,” Martinez said. “The race was actually a pretty interesting race. It was between me and one other guy. I don’t remember too much about that weekend, but I do remember the track pretty well. I tested there in a couple other cars. Obviously in the Renault cars and I tested there in an Indy Lights cars.”
Even though he’s already won a race at the Portland road course, Martinez said driving stock cars there will be much different than open-wheel cars.
“It’s tough,” Martinez said. “The biggest thing is just the line and knowing the track. As far as braking points and apexes, it’s going to be all different just because of the weight difference. Obviously the track, the line, that’s the only thing I’ll have over anybody. I still think we have a real good road course car. We should be strong there.”
Martinez points to the most recent West race, the King Taco 200 at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale (Calif.) on July 3, as one of his better races. He finished ninth and was the highest-finishing rookie. More than the results, though, Martinez said it was the first time he felt confident on a race track for a West race. Martinez raced NASCAR Super Late Models at Irwindale for two years before graduating to the West Series. He knows the track well, unlike the other ovals on the West Series schedule.
“I haven’t had that all year because I’ve never been to another track other than Irwindale,” Martinez said. “I finally felt I was at a track where I can handle myself really well and I knew what the car needed to feel like. At the same time, we kind of fell off at the second half of the race. I don’t think they made the right adjustments at the midway point. I think other cars got better and we just didn’t keep up as well as we should have. I thought it was pretty good. We’re going to go back and start testing there again before the Showdown. We need to improve a lot. I think it was a good first outing at Irwindale.”
While Irwindale was one of the high points for Martinez, the race before at Douglas County Speedway in Oregon was one of the low points.
The power steering on his car failed during practice. His team replaced the power steering box four times before fixing the problem. The car didn’t make it to the end of the race though. He completed only 54 laps before withdrawing and ending up with a 19th and last-place finish.
As for the other tracks, Martinez said it’s been an inconsistent mix of good and bad races.
“Phoenix we were doing okay for a while,” Martinez said. “At Iowa, we struggled a lot, right up to qualifying, we finally picked it up. During the race, we got into a lot of passing situations. The short tracks have been the best for us. It’s really hard to say what’s been the best. We’ve had so many ups and downs at every kind of track.”
Martinez said he has three goals for his rookie season in the West Series: He wants to win the Rookie of the Year, he wants to finish in the top five in points and he wants to win at least one race.
The Bruncati cars have been good on road courses. Bowles won two West races in a row at Infineon Raceway for Bruncati in 2008 and 2009. David Gilliland won the West race for Bruncati at Infineon Raceway in 2007.
Bowles was leading the race in Portland last year with 10 laps to go when he made contact with Eric Holmes and fell back.
Bruncati said his cars should be in contention to win again this weekend.
“If they’re as good as they tell me, we should have a real good shot at it,” he said.