Bliss salvaged top 10 from disappointment By Brett Borden
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (Dec. 7, 1998) Mike Bliss came into the 1998 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season seeking his first championship. Despite finishing 10th in the final points standings, he leaves it seeking a ride.
Bliss, a skiing buff in the offseason, started the majority of the season's races in good position. Unfortunately, it was all too often downhill from there. In 27 races, Bliss started on the Bud Pole four times, on the front row nine times, and in the first three rows 17 times. If those were finishes, they would be championship numbers. But Bliss had trouble finishing what he started.
He started fifth in the season's third race, the Chevy Trucks Desert Star Classic at Phoenix International Raceway, but finished 33rd. He followed that with a sixth-place start in the Craftsman 200 presented by NAPA Auto Parts at Portland (Ore.) Speedway, only to finish 28th. Six more times in 1998, Bliss would start in the top five, only to finish 19th or worse. .
After an average finish of 23.4 in the first five races, Bliss had started to turn things around. He finished third and seventh in back-to-back races at I-70 Speedway in Odessa, Mo., and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International. Then he hit the wall hard at Texas Motor Speedway in the Pronto Auto Parts 400K, breaking his shoulder blade.
Facing a four-to-six week recovery period, Bliss elected to start the next race on the schedule - the Loadhandler 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway -- a mere two weeks later. His plan was to start the race for points, then give up the seat to a relief driver. But once Bliss got his adrenaline going, there was no getting out of the truck.
"That plan went out the window as soon as I got in the truck," he said. "We were going to start in the back, and then come in. I came in, but then I went back out when the yellow came out so I could stay at the back. I wanted to race."
He finished 25th in that race, but it must have triggered something inside him, for he won the following race, the DieHard 200 at the Milwaukee Mile on July 4th.
"I feel so good right now," said Bliss afterwards. "It's been so bad. This just feels so good, being injured and then coming back and winning. There's a Robert Yates motor underneath this thing. It ran good all day. Barry Dodson (crew chief) told me the times and how much we had, and I just kind of cruised from there saving those Goodyears in case we had a three-lap shootout at the end."
By saving those Goodyears, Bliss looked to be on his way to a good year, winning two Bud Poles and pulling out two more top-10 finishes in the next three races. But then came the stretch that tested the patience of both driver and team. Bliss' average in those five races was 17.2, and when the team came to Louisville Motor Speedway for the Kroger 225, things came to a head.
Bliss, who started second in Louisville and finished fourth, made public before the race that the and Ultra Motorsports/Team ASE would be parting ways after the season.
"The team and I came to an agreement that things weren't working out the way we had hoped," he said. "The chemistry just isn't there. It's time for Mike Bliss to move forward with his racing career."
The next four races produced more disappointment for Bliss and Co. He didn't finish near the front again until the Kragen/Exide 150 at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., where he finished runner-up to road course ace Boris Said.
With three races left in the season, Bliss came to Bakersfield and Mesa Marin Raceway, where he led a good portion of the race before falling off the pace late and finishing 19th. He found something he was doing in defeat, however, that helped lead him to victory in the next race, the GM Goodwrench Service Plus/AC Delco 300 at Phoenix.
"I've been through a lot this year, and I've led a lot of races and I've lost a lot of races myself just by overdriving," said Bliss. "Jeff Gordon is there at the end. He just lays back. When the tires are brand new you just want to go out and run as hard as you can. At Bakersfield I ran pretty hard all day because I wanted to win so bad. That doesn't win races. You've got to be smart to win races."
It was an emotional victory for the entire team, and it sparked speculation that Bliss might stay with the team for 1999. But following a sixth-place finish in the season finale Sam's Town 250 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the team decided to go in a different direction.
By compiling three top-six finishes in the last four races, including a victory, Bliss climbed back into the top 10 in the points standings. He also earned the Bud Pole Award for the 1998 season. It was a roller coaster ride for both driver and team, and when it was over they decided it was time to get off.
Source: NASCAR Online