Forget for a minute that it was a road course or that he was driving a Kevin Harvick Inc. car.
With a second place finish on Sunday at Circuit Gilles Villenueve, Max Papis silenced critics and may have saved his NASCAR career. The feisty Italian came within a few feet of taking home a trophy, yet still managed to feel like a winner.
Just a few weeks ago he was booted from his Sprint Cup Series ride as Casey Mears received another chance at NASCAR’s top level. Papis, who became the smiling, loveable face behind the wheel of the No. 13 GEICO Toyota, was relieved of his duties and has headed back to the Camping World Truck Series.
Debuting and only running two races in 2008, Papis made 25 starts in the NSCS even capturing a top 10 finish last year at Watkins Glen where he finished eighth. His short career hasn’t exactly set the racing world on fire, but it hasn’t turned people t away from him.
As mentioned, Papis always has a smile on his face, especially after just qualifying for the next race. Polite in his interviews but fierce on the track when need be, it’s hard to find non-Papis supporters.
The enthusiasm is only matched in competitive nature when behind the wheel. Driving for a team, Germain Racing, which has to do more with less you won’t hear Papis complain. That includes when having to start and park, but Papis was always just happy to be here.
After 74 laps around the 14-turn track in Montreal, he finally delivered a reason for everyone to be happy for and with him.
“I came here with the expectations of finishing in the top five,” Papis said after the race. “Kevin Harvick and DeLana gave me the opportunity to sit in an amazing car and we came to the last corner with the win to grasp.”
As fellow competitors used and abused their cars, ran out of gas, or ran off the track, Papis stayed steady. Running as smoothly as he could for the duration of the event, crew chief Ernie Cope and the No. 33 team got the job done on pit road as Papis kept it in one piece on the track.
Their strategy remained the same, never panicking when cautions fell over and over during the final quarter of the race.
“I saved a ton of fuel going through the field and we had an eventful race,” Papis said. “They [Joey Logano] spun me out like in the middle of the race and went back to like 18th and I drove pretty hard but kept saving fuel. I knew that Robby [Gordon] was not going to make it but I knew he was going to make it hard life for me because that’s how Robby is.”
Soon there was just one lap and one driver separating him from the checkered flag and what would have been an unbelievable but popular victory. Papis and Boris Said gave everything they had to be the first to the finish line, trading the lead while delighting fans in the process.
“This is NASCAR racing and that’s why I came here,” Papis said.
The exhaustion, excitement and relief were all evident on Papis’ face when he climbed out of the car on pit road. He wasn’t just another road course ace doing what was expected of him, Papis was seizing an opportunity.
“This is what I can do in a good car and I’m really proud and thank you Kevin, thank you D [DeLana] for the opportunity,” Papis said for what appeared to be the hundredth time. Papis though knows what good cars and he can do, winning on an oval in the Champ Car Series in 2000 and 2001.
Coming to NASCAR hasn’t been easy but it’s been worth it. Sunday reminded everyone of what Max Papis is capable of and given the right situation what he could do again.
“I know it’s a second-place finish, but it’s equal to one of my best wins.”