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Mike Bliss the Latest Casualty of Phoenix Racing

Last week, everyone following the Nationwide Series was left scratching their heads as to why CJM Racing chose to let go of promising rookie Scott Lagasse Jr. despite knocking on the door of the top 10 in points and having a sponsor happy with their wheelman.

Since that move was indeed a head-scratcher, I’m still trying to find the word that describe Phoenix Racing’s move to release Mike Bliss, currently sixth in points, from his ride in the No. 1 car.

The stat sheet from 2009 can’t help but leave one throwing their hands up in the air as to what James Finch’s rationale is. Bliss is a Nationwide regular driving for an independent team, and yet managed to find victory lane at Charlotte in May. He’s scored 10 top-10 finishes, on pace to far exceed the 13 he earned for the team last season. And had his luck been a tad better, he would have scored higher in both categories (remember the Richmond race where a broken suspension piece left him at the back of the field after having a car that was top five all night and led laps?). What’s more, Bliss was the driver responsible for bringing the team back to competitiveness after lackluster 2006 and 2007 campaigns.

It may be hard to remember considering how well Bliss has had the No. 1 car running since taking over the ride at Texas last spring, but prior to his arrival Phoenix Racing was way off the pace. After a solid 2005 campaign with Johnny Sauter behind the wheel resulted in a win and 11 top-10 finishes for the No. 1 team (wow, Bliss has accomplished all but that in only 21 races in 2009), the team hired veteran driver Jason Keller to take over for 2006.

And after eight races, they canned him. From there, the team rotated Mike Wallace, Scott Pruett and Cale Gale throughout the year, and the results were as fragmented as the driver roster: a combined four top 10s in 35 races.

Expanding to two cars in 2007 didn’t improve the organization’s performance at all. Wallace started all 35 races in a second No. 7 entry, but didn’t score a single top 10 the entire season. JJ Yeley fared no better, notching only one top 10 in 29 starts and running so poorly that he abandoned plans to run a double-duty season between the Cup and Nationwide series because, frankly, he had no chance in hell of winning a Nationwide crown (or race for that matter).

In 2008, it was more of the same. Even though the team reunited with Sauter, the last driver to take them to victory lane at the time, that partnership only lasted five races before it was terminated. While Sauter was still much the same driver who had won for the team, the overall upheaval that seemed to surround the team following Wallace’s departure, combined with the disjointed effort of the No. 1 all through 2007, left the organization in complete disarray. Case in point, a two crew-chief system atop the pit box that destroyed any performance the team could throw together.

Said a Phoenix Racing crew member of their race at Las Vegas that season, “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.”

Following Sauter’s release, Sterling Marlin took over for a relief deal to drive at Nashville, and he did what every other driver had done recently, run mid-pack in unspectacular fashion.

Then came Bliss.

Bliss’s debut in the No. 1 at Texas was more of the same, a 24th-place finish. Then suddenly, the 2002 Truck Series champion turned on the jets, and carried the No. 1 car back to the front of the Nationwide field. Scoring 13 top-10 finishes, Bliss had a team that had once become accustomed to victory lane with names such as Sauter and Jamie McMurray behind the wheel back knocking on the proverbial door. And while he didn’t get that elusive win until earlier this season, the fact remains that Bliss was the driver and the figure that got Phoenix Racing back on track.

Said one of his crew men at Charlotte last October, “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 racetrack with a good car and someone who can drive it.”

But that’s no longer enough, and when one takes into consideration Phoenix Racing’s past history with regard to driver management, one can’t help but feel this move has nothing to do with racing. This is the same organization that fired veteran Keller after only eight races and that fired Johnny Benson after only 10 starts in 2004 (and that was with a pole and four top 10s to his credit).

This is the same team that reportedly came close to firing Bliss a few weeks back following the July event at Daytona, only to renege (as if someone got hot and did something stupid). And that would hardly be surprising, considering again that this is a team that in the past has had crew chiefs go as far as to sabotage their own team’s race.

If that’s not enough, consider also that the last two times the team fired their full-time driver midseason, they’ve never managed to salvage anything out of those campaigns. After firing Benson early in 2004, the team utilized nine different drivers and scored only three more top 10s combined in 24 races than Benson did in his 10. The same can be said for 2006 after firing Keller: Wallace, Pruett and Gale scored only four top-10 finishes in their 27 starts.

So what we have is a team that fired a driver whose sixth in points in favor of apparently using a patchquilt of drivers to fill 2009 (Ryan Newman has been slated to drive this weekend at the Glen), even though that practice failed for the operation in both 2004 and 2006. A team that dumped the very same driver that brought them from the doldrums to the front of the pack. And a team that has made a habit of dumping veterans.

Lagasse’s booted, now Bliss. Who’s next, Brad Keselowski? Just watch, next time Brad races the No. 09 in Cup and fails to win, Finch’ll boot him too.

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