Going home again proving to be successful endeavor for NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series competitor Mike Bliss. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 14, 2002) - Mike Bliss will tell you that, sometimes, the straightaway into the future can loop into the ...
Going home again proving to be successful endeavor for NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series competitor Mike Bliss.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 14, 2002) - Mike Bliss will tell you that, sometimes, the straightaway into the future can loop into the backstretch of the past.
Bliss, a charter member of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, bought out his Roush Racing contract at the conclusion of the 1999 season expecting to savor success on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
The Milwaukie, Ore. competitor, a United States Auto Club open-wheel champion, found the going worse than tough. Bliss spent a single race - the 2000 Daytona 500, for which he didn't qualify - with A.J. Foyt and half a season at Eel River Racing, a team whose fortunes mirrored the frustrations of Bliss.
Chagrined, Bliss ran a handful of open-wheel races in 2001 and a race apiece in the NASCAR Busch Series, Grand National Division and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. In the latter, Bliss finished ninth at South Boston, Va. with Xpress Motorsports.
Team owner Steve Coulter, who'd been in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series with driver Randy Tolsma in 1996-98 and competed in the NASCAR Busch Series through mid-2001, saw an opportunity - with Bliss - to take a step back.
And, heading into the season's fifth race, Sunday's Rocky Mountain 200 Presented by Dodge (4 p.m. ET/ESPN2), Bliss is within striking distance of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship lead. He's followed up a Daytona engine failure with three consecutive top-three finishes and a Bud Pole at Gateway International Raceway to trail point leader David Starr by just 22 points.
All of which proves, at least on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, you can go home again.
Bliss called it"an easy decision" when Coulter, along with veteran crew chief Dave Fuge, suggested he join them in NASCAR Craftsman Trucks.
Ironically, Xpress itself was ready to close its doors in late 2001 but Coulter, owner of one of the nation's largest fleet of refrigerated long-haul trucks, was reinvigorated by Bliss's success at South Boston Speedway.
"In a way, they were in the same position as I was - on the outside looking in," Bliss said."They had one truck sitting in the back of the shop and we decided to run it once at South Boston. We ran pretty well and that got everyone, including Steve, pumped up to go racing again.
"After that, everything started to fall into place and we started building new trucks to get ready for the season. This is the best opportunity I have had in awhile. I like being up front and in a position to win races. I was used to success in NASCAR Craftsman Trucks and open wheel. That was fun. Worrying about whether you were even going to make the race or running for a 30th-place check every week wasn't."
The record book certainly attests to Bliss' competitive fires.
Bliss won his first race in 1995, at the old North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway. He's won six more times, most recently on Aug. 28, 1999 at Heartland Park Topeka. In 126 career starts Bliss has amassed 15 Bud Poles, 39 top-five and 67 top-10 finishes and more than $1.86 million in winnings.
The 37-year-old Bliss, 1993 USAC Silver Crown champion, hasn't missed a beat in returning to his previous level of competition with Ultra Motorsports and Roush Racing. Several have argued that it's easier now with a couple of former champions and their teams no longer active on the series.
Bliss is having none of that.
"Sure, Jack Sprague and Ron Hornaday are gone but there are new guys like Ted Musgrave and Robert Pressley taking their place," Bliss said."The top-10 trucks and drivers are just as competitive as when I left here and the competition at the back of the field is tougher than it was before.
"There are more trucks than ever showing up for these races and I see the field being a lot stronger than it used to be. A lot of guys are running real well."
Given Bliss' history at Pikes Peak International Raceway, it would be anything but a stretch to see the No. 16 IWX Motor Freight/Knights Inn Chevrolet Silverado wind up in victory circle. Bliss sat on the Bud Pole in 1998-99, finishing sixth in the former race. He led 57 laps - most among competitors entered at PPIR.
Two flat tires, in 1998, hobbled Bliss, who still managed a lead lap finish."I've never had much luck in the races themselves [at Pikes Peak]," he said."We definitely want to do better this time."
Also, much has changed aerodynamically on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series since 1999, along with the harder compound Goodyear Eagle tire.
"It will be interesting since we don't have any old race notes to go by," said Bliss."In the past, I've known what the truck needs to go fast and we just went from there. Now, it's like starting over because I'm relearning what these trucks need and what these tires can do."
Of course, that's what Bliss, Coulter and Fuge have been doing since Daytona.
They've even surprised themselves.
"In some ways, I'm a little surprised how well we've run so far this year," said Bliss."Everything has been clicking right off the bat. I'm almost a little bit nervous because things have been going so well.
"The whole team is getting along great and everyone is focused on doing well. It's nice to be in that situation again."