The Frontstretch: Nuts for Nationwide: Phoenix Racing Living Up to Its Name, On the Rise Once Again by Bryan Davis Keith -- Thursday November 6, 2008

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Phoenix Racing and Johnny Sauter proved a winning combination in 2005. Driving the entire season for James Finch’s No. 1 team, Sauter posted 11 Top 10 finishes, including a dominating win from the pole at Milwaukee, en route to finishing 12th in the Busch Series standings. Considering this, few were surprised to see Sauter return to the No. 1 car for the 2008 Nationwide Series season.

This lightning didn’t strike twice. Following the season’s fifth race at Bristol, Sauter had not cracked the Top 10 in any race, and the No. 1 team found itself mired 22nd in the owner point standings. Like many other independent Nationwide teams out there, Phoenix Racing found itself struggling to keep up with the deluge of Cup teams at the front of NASCAR’s second-tier series.

One of the team’s crew men summed the situation up succinctly at Charlotte. “The Childress cars, the Gibbs cars, Roush, Hendrick. You know, it’s just hard to beat them. Here we’ve got a $6 million budget and 30 people, they’ve got $150 million and 700 people. It’s just hard to do.”

What’s worse, there was tension abounding on the team. The team was utilizing a two crew-chief system that just wasn’t clicking. Said the same crew member, “It was a pissing contest between the driver we had [Johnny Sauter] and those guys. We went to Las Vegas and the crew chiefs deliberately just messed it up.”

“It wasn’t good. Worst race we’ve ever been in.”

Just two weeks after the sabotage at Vegas, Sauter was released, and the team’s future driver was uncertain. Sterling Marlin struggled royally in a one-off deal for the team at Nashville, finishing three laps down in 22nd, never in contention. This was not familiar territory for the team and owner Finch.

A long-time team member remarked “I’ve been with James [Finch] every race, I met James years before, he had no money when I met him. Been with him the whole time. He told me, I’m going to stick it out or quit. So, we talked about it, and we made this deal.”

Mike Bliss is 5th in points, the second-highest Nationwide-only regular in the standings, posting 14 Top 10 finishes in 33 starts this season.

The deal was with Mike Bliss, and it was one that I as a writer criticized. Bliss was in the Top 5 in Nationwide points driving for Fitz Motorsports’ No. 22 car, while Phoenix Racing was struggling. And in his first race in the No. 1, Bliss finished much like Sterling Marlin, three laps down in 24th at Texas. But the struggles ended there.

Since that first race in Fort Worth, Bliss has posted 12 Top 10 finishes for the team, including a runner-up finish at Dover in September. Riding this momentum, the No. 1 team has also climbed from 22nd to ninth in the Nationwide Series owner standings, while Bliss remains at fifth in driver points.

A member of the No. 1 team recalled the situation that brought Bliss to their garage. “I’d never dealt with Mike, been around him till he come over, but I heard that he was hard to get along with.”

“Well he hadn’t been hard to get along with at all with us.”

Bliss, the 2002 Craftsman Truck Series champion and former Nationwide Series winner, was known to have the talent needed to bring the No. 1 car back to the front. But Bliss’ contributions to this team, according to his crew, go beyond just turning left.

“He’s really brought everybody back together [since Sauter’s release] and everybody’s learning pretty good. He does some whining, it’s too loose, it’s this way, that way, but during the race when he does that, he’s normally moving forward, trying to get it perfect where he can really go for it.”

“It makes you feel good knowing you can go to the race track with a good car and someone who can drive it.”

The on-track performance speaks volumes as to how Bliss has improved the Phoenix Racing team, but it’s also important to note that the No. 1 team has provided a stable home for Bliss, something he hasn’t had since he was released from his Cup ride with Haas CNC Racing at the end of 2005. Bliss has since found rides predominantly with BAM Racing and Fitz Motorsports, teams that both have found themselves in dire financial straits.

According to his crew, “Where he [Bliss] came from, he wasn’t getting his paychecks. It’s that simple. And the BAM team over there owed him a bunch of money, he wasn’t getting his money.”

“I think Mike likes it [here] because he gets his paycheck every week.”

The addition of Mike Bliss to the No. 1 team has indeed changed its direction, and the No. 1 car is now once again a fixture at the front of the Nationwide Series field. Statistically, Bliss’ move to the team can’t be seen as anything but a positive. And the remarks of his crew are more of the same.

According to a team member, “He comes to the shop every Monday or Tuesday, sets the seat himself. He doesn’t ask you to fix it, he fixes it.”

“He thinks all the time. And another thing, you never have to wonder where he’s at. He’s here. He’s here every morning when he’s supposed to be, he stays till its quitting time. He’s not off hunting himself another ride, he’s here.”

And it looks like he’ll be back for 2009. According to Bliss, he expects to be back in the No. 1 car with primary sponsor Miccosukee Resorts starting at Daytona in February.

As a team member stated, “We’d be a fool to change.”

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