NASCAR veteran Mike Bliss doesn't like the idea of start-and-parks, but he knows they're a necessary evil for race teams without full sponsorship to stay in business. There are lucrative purses in Sprint Cup and an owner can meet his payroll and overhead by dropping out with an ignition, vibration or overheating "problem."
The challenge is getting into the race. Start-and-park teams are rarely in the top 35 in owner points and have to qualify on time. If they don't, the weekend -- with travel expenses, the cost of practice and qualifying -- is a total loss. The pressure on the driver and the team is enormous.
Bliss was a master under those conditions in 2009 and qualified on time in 13 of 14 attempts for Phoenix Racing (11) and TRG Motorsports (two). His performance was good enough to catch the eye of Tommy Baldwin Jr., who hired Bliss to drive his No. 36 Chevrolet next season. It'll be the first full Cup season for Bliss since 2005.
Baldwin started his team a year ago after he was laid off by Bill Davis Racing's Cup team, which folded a few weeks later. Baldwin was the crew chief and director of competition for Davis Racing, and has five wins, including the 2002 Daytona 500. He also has a victory with Kasey Kahne at Evernham Motorsports.
Baldwin's team attempted to qualify for all 36 races last year and made 25. Scott Riggs, who began in the No. 36, got into eight of 12 races and left after the team was forced to resort to start-and-park to keep the operation alive. Mike Skinner, Patrick Carpentier and Michael McDowell also drove for the team. Ultimately, Baldwin Racing finished 41st in owner points, meaning the team doesn't have a guaranteed position in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Bliss and Baldwin have never worked together, but they're cut from the same cloth. They're good, solid racers who know how to take a punch, get back up and keep going. They've dealt with success and failure. They've been hired and fired. And they've never quit believing in themselves.
Still, Bliss and Baldwin do have history; Bliss spoke with Baldwin about occasionally driving the No. 36 last year, but their schedules never worked out. Bliss drove the full Nationwide schedule, finishing fifth in points, in addition to the Cup races. But in November, Bliss was unemployed for 2010.
"Tommy wanted to run me in his car here and there last year, but I couldn't do it because of commitments," Bliss said. "At the end of the year, I called him and said, 'Let me know if something comes up, I might want to drive.' Tommy invited me to meet his sponsor. They didn't know me, but after we met they decided I'd be a good representative for them and we signed a deal within 24 hours. It happened quick."
Baldwin has an agreement with Wave for 14 races this season, but he's committed to running all 36. "Tommy is still working on sponsors for some more races, but he's going to be at all 36 no matter what," Bliss said. "It's a good opportunity for me."
Bliss' ability to qualify may have been the decisive factor in joining Baldwin, but he's a quality driver with experience, too. After Bliss qualified seventh for the Chase race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, TRG allowed him to go the distance. He finished 24th. He has 95 career Cup starts with one top-five -- a fourth at Richmond in 2004 -- and five top-10s. In his last full Cup season, he was 28th in the points and had two top-10s.
Bliss also has 13 victories in the Camping World Truck Series, where he was champion in 2002, and two wins in Nationwide, including in 2009, at Lowe's. In total, Bliss has 476 starts in NASCAR's three national series, and he's also won a race in the International Race of Champions in 2003.
"Mike brings a lot of experience to the table and next year, we're stepping everything up," Baldwin explained. "He gives us the chance to qualify for the Daytona 500 and get ourselves in the top 35 in points after the first five events of the 2010 season. I'm very excited to have him on board along with our sponsor, Wave Energy Drink."