In the midst of another year of Cup domination in the Nationwide Series, former Cup driver Mike Bliss has put together some impressive credentials. Despite running for two different teams, the 43-year-old veteran is the second-highest Nationwide-only regular in the standings, with 14 top-10 finishes in 33 starts to land himself fifth in points, 567 behind championship leader Clint Bowyer. After six starts in Fitz Motorsports’ No. 22 Dodge, Bliss moved over to his current ride at Phoenix Racing, where he’s lifted the No. 1 Miccosukee Resorts Chevrolet to its best year in the series since Johnny Sauter drove the car in 2005.
Bryan Davis Keith sat down recently with Bliss to discuss his season, the continuous Nationwide vs Cup driver saga, and how the current economic crisis might affect NASCAR’s second-tier division.
Bryan Davis Keith, Frontstretch: Y’all are currently the leader of the independent Nationwide Series teams. How significant an accomplishment is that, given the status of the division this season?
Mike Bliss: You know, it’s funny, a lot of guys say that. I just think that those guys, the other drivers and other teams – yeah, maybe they get help from the Cup guys, but those drivers aren’t any better than us, you know. They just have a different opportunity [in Cup].
You know, I take that back. Jimmie Johnson is proving he can win championships, he’s a smart racecar driver. Carl Edwards is a smart racecar driver, too. But I think [if] we get into their equipment, [the Nationwide regulars] can run as fast as they can – we’ve just got to be smart. And I think that’s what it takes, being a smart racecar driver throughout the whole year. Our team is good; it’s probably as good as all those other teams. Maybe I’ll exclude the Gibbs group; they’re winning all the races. They’ve got their stuff going.
Keith: When you came to this team, they were not running up front. You slide in the car at Texas, have one good race, and suddenly, everything turns around. You guys have been up front for the rest of the season. Can you pinpoint anything that’s gotten y’all back up there?
Bliss: Well, when I came on, they had two crew chiefs before me in five races. That wasn’t really fair to Johnny [Sauter]. When I came over here, they just stuck with what they had last year. Mark Reno was back to the crew chief role, and Nick Harris was the car chief – he makes good calls on the racecar setups. [They] just stuck with what they knew and got back to basics and just tried to work on stuff without tricking ourselves. The car at Lowe’s was the one I ran every mile track [with]; fortunately, we can work on just this one car and make it better and better.
Keith: Speaking about the Nationwide Series, looking at the garage you see a lot of Cup teams down there. You’ve said that the drivers aren’t better; but with the prevalence that they’re in the series right now, is it something you see NASCAR needing to address as the independents get forced out of the fold a bit?
Bliss: The drivers aren’t better. We’re all racecar drivers, and we got [to this level] because we were good somewhere else. And you know, [Cup drivers] got into opportunities that made them good. Johnson won championships because he’s smart. There’s a difference there between a guy that can go very, very fast but only do it for half the race.
What was the question again?
Keith: Just, with all the Cup teams here, and we’re seeing teams like the Rensis struggle to find sponsorship…
Bliss: Yeah, that’s my problem there. I don’t mind racing against the Cup guys, the drivers and owners. The sponsors are the problem, because they think that maybe those owners over there in Cup are saying, “Hey Scotts, we’ll give you Edwards every race. We’ll put you on our Cup cars on the B-pillar, we’ll put you as a primary sponsor [on the Nationwide car], and we’ll run Carl.” That’s not fair to guys that are walking around here that are Nationwide drivers that can do the job, too. The sponsors want Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series; so, the Cup teams give it to them. Well, why don’t they give them somebody else? And say, here’s what you get, we’ll still put your name on this, this, and this. Sponsors want that brand name, Carl Edwards, to do all the shows. Well, you can find another driver and build another hero. Edwards five years ago wasn’t crap. He [Jack Roush] developed him, he can do it again [with someone else].
It’s the same thing putting Johnson in the Lowe’s car. Lowe’s wants him here at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, but what’s wrong with the other kid [Landon Cassill]? Give these other guys a shot. Build a Nationwide Series, not a Cup Nationwide Series.
Keith: If you were put in charge of this series for a day, given that task that you just said – to build a Nationwide Series – what would you do as a sanctioning body to make it a more independent entity?
Bliss: I guess you would have to make it so that the owners aren’t rewarded for running a Cup guy in the car. Now, what is that? No points, maybe? Maybe no owner points. No money. Put it towards the Busch Series owners. Nationwide, Nationwide, Nationwide…
Keith: I keep messing it up, too. It happens.
Bliss: Anyways, maybe it’s rewarding the Nationwide teams and drivers or taking away from [the Cup teams] to force them to put a driver in there that’s not in the Cup Series.
Keith: There’s a lot of start and parks in the back of the garage right now. Do you think that’s something that NASCAR should be looking into?
Bliss: Wait till next year… that’s just the way it is. You know, there’s just not enough quality teams that have a big enough budget to run the whole year, so they do it by starting and parking. We need to start 43 cars, [and] that’s just the way the economy is.
Keith: If NASCAR was to cut the field to 36 for this series until the economy picks up, would you have an objection to that?
Bliss: No, not really. But they’re not going to have enough cars next year. Or trucks.
Keith: How are y’all looking for 2009?
Bliss: I believe Miccosukee Resorts is back. Everything looks like it’s going to stay the same…