Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Another Year, Another Ride for Journeyman Mike Bliss

It’s hard to find a car in the Nationwide Series garage that Mike Bliss hasn’t driven at some point in his career. Now, after driving for seven teams over the last two seasons, Bliss has landed at Tri-Star Motorsports, which following the addition of a fully sponsored Eric McClure to their roster has gone from an upstart to a three-car team in the course of a year. Bryan Davis Keith caught up with Bliss to discuss his new home, and what 2011 has in store for one of the series’ longtime fixtures.

Bryan Davis Keith, Frontstretch: New ride, new team. How’s the new Daytona been for you this weekend?

Mike Bliss: I don’t know if any us are going to say ‘man, what a great track.’ But a year ago we were all bitching because the track was wore out. Now we’re running around there and, well, I don’t know, there’s no real happy medium I think for us drivers. Next year I’m sure when we come back here it’ll be a different racetrack, but for now it’s like driving on the freeway at 200 mph.

Keith: You’ve got an interesting corps of teammates here, with Eric McClure on the one hand and a past champion in Jeff Green on the other. It’s early, but how has it been working with those two so far?

Bliss: Well, here at Daytona we really haven’t worked on anything, just speed right now. But I see it working out well down the road, for all of us. [Just like any team], we have extra cars that we can rely on if we find something that works or doesn’t work. It’s always good to have team cars.

Keith: You’ve been on both sides of the Nationwide garage in recent years; you’ve driven for some big name teams and even some start-and-park cars. Looking at this team, what they’ve accomplished over the last year like getting into the top 30, what can you see that they’ve done right? They’re now a three-car team and they’re here at Daytona.

Bliss: Right now it’s been real tough [actually]. I think back as late as the first week of December, they didn’t really have anything. They had a few CoTs from last year, but they didn’t have anything new for this year. And in a month and a half, they’ve really worked their tales off and come a long way. They’ve built new cars, so for the first three or four races I think we’re going to be learning a lot. We haven’t brought out our best stuff yet because we’re still building it. Come April I think we’ll be running better. I think we’ll run well right now, but our good cars are still being built.

Keith: Looking at the season moving forward, the No. 19 car isn’t fully sponsored yet. How does that enter your thought process?

Bliss: It’s definitely a concern. I don’t want Mark [Smith’s] wallet dwindling down to nothing. I do know the No. 19 will be driven by some other drivers because of a lack of funding for myself and I’ll be driving the third car that Jeff [Green’s] driving, because I’m running to stay up in the driver points. The first couple of races I miss, that could come back to bite. We’re working hard on some kind of sponsorship. We don’t need a lot. In these days, a little means a lot. Maybe next year we’ll have a lot of stuff and we’ll be alright, but now it’s still up in the air. Over here Eric [McClure’s already] pretty well set, so we should be OK.

Keith: Where is the biggest learning curve adjusting to this new car?

Bliss: You know, the old cars, we’ve been running them to death for years. We knew which front springs to run, which bars. A team like ourselves, compared to a team like Harvick [KHI] that has a lot more information and a lot more resources, we’re going to hit or miss more. We’re going to run well, and we’re not going to run well. It’s going to take a few months for us to really learn these race cars, to learn what front springs we need to run, what rear springs, what shocks. So we’re going to be a little behind, but I’m sure our people will come to a handle on it.

Keith: Looking at the field we have, we might be short at Phoenix next week. What does that say, if anything, about where the Nationwide Series is?

Bliss: All in all, it’s just a tough time to do anything. Even if we had the old cars right now, the way the economy is and sponsorship is, we’d be struggling to get cars too. With the new car, some of the teams that would show up to race 5-6 times a year don’t have any cars. Now when we go back to Phoenix a second time, you’ll see a lot more cars. But people are still building them. And that shock of having to build and pay for them, that’s tough right now. In about a year, that shock will be gone, and people will be able to go out and buy a used car if they want to from other teams.

Keith: Looking at yesterday, Brian Keselowski pulled off a huge upset and qualified for the Daytona 500. A story like that, what kind of impact does that have a team on yours and in the garage?

Bliss: When I was watching it, I thought it was really cool. You weren’t even watching the race, you were watching those two cars. I was fixed on those two cars. That was pretty neat with a few laps to go. I think for the sport – I mean I’ve read a lot of headlines that say this is still a family sport, and everyone’s still looking out for each other.

Keith: Racing for a Nationwide title this year, it’s a sure thing that a Nationwide regular will win the championship. At the same time, it’s not guaranteed the champion will score the most points. Was that the right change to make? Does that change alter the value of the Nationwide title in some way?

Bliss: I think it was the right move. I think Nationwide wanted to see that more. I’m not sure, but I think our series sponsor wanted to see a regular Nationwide driver do that. I think there’s a lot of good drivers over here that will outscore even the Cup drivers this year. I think the field has a strong lineup of Nationwide drivers.

Keith: What’s the key to surviving 300 miles of ‘driving on the freeway’ this weekend?

Bliss: I think you’re going to see packs of cars. The first pack of 10-12 cars will pull away, and then another pack, another pack. It’s just getting to the end of the race. We all want to get to the end of the race here and see how it plays out. We haven’t really done any drafting yet, so I don’t know what the car is going to do in the draft. We’re just going to have to take the first half of the race and see what’s going on.

Keith: Should we expect the two-car pairs we’ve been seeing in the Cup Series on Saturday, or will we see the packs we’ve gotten accustomed to seeing?

Bliss: I don’t think you’ll see what you saw in the Duels. The bumpers on these cars don’t line up anywhere near like the cars over there. [The Cup cars], they’re so flat bumpered on every car, over here if you look at a Ford, a Chevrolet, a Toyota, all the noses have character to them. They don’t match up as well as the Cup cars.

Keith: How about tires? Are they giving anything at all?

Bliss: I doubt…I mean, I think we’ll change two tires. We’ll change right-side tires.

Keith: That’s over the course of a whole race?

Bliss: Goodyear’s losing out on this one. I’m pretty sure we’ll [just change rights]. We might change four, just to give the guys some practice. But I don’t think you’ll need to change tires more than once.

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