When Max Papis arrived in Daytona for NASCAR Speedweeks, he was, for all intents and purposes, a rookie at Daytona International Speedway. While the 2004 Grand-Am Series Champion has recorded two wins in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, he had not turned even a single lap in a stock car prior to his arrival last week; strange considering Papis’s storied career and success at Daytona in other disciplines of racing.
After posting a qualifying speed that left the #13 GEICO Toyota Camry in the 40th position after Pole qualifying, Papis and the GEICO team would need to race their way into the Daytona 500. The Gatorade Duel 150’s would give them that opportunity and they would seize it.
Papis and the #13 GEICO Camry started in the 20th position, just behind Reed Sorenson and ahead of John Andretti. He would need to finish in the top two of the ‘go or go home’ cars if he expected to be in the starting field for the Daytona 500. Papis and the GEICO Racing team seemed undaunted, however, as they made their way onto pit road prior to the race.
Sunny skies and cool temperatures blanketed the Daytona area and would provide the perfect setting for a race. Consequently, the grandstands filled up and man-made thunder soon filled the speedway as the green flag waved over the opening Duel 150.
Riding solidly in the 20th spot, Papis was 3rd among the ‘go or go home cars’ when the event’s first caution was displayed after Jeff Burton caught the wall on the front stretch. It was the next caution that seemingly would have knocked Papis and the GEICO team out of contention. He was nearly collected when he got door-to-door with Clint Bowyer on Lap 33, resulting in Terry Cook losing control of his car just in front of the #13 GEICO Camry. Papis made a phenomenal save, but caught the rear of Cook’s car, causing concern from crew chief Bootie Barker. Papis’s trip down pit road would serve as a major setback, as he returned to the racing surface in the 24th position, and 7th among the ‘go or go home cars’.
The smooth move of the day was not made by Papis, but rather by his crew chief. When Michael Waltrip’s late-race spin on Lap 53 caused the caution flag to wave, Barker instructed his driver to keep the #13 GEICO Camry out on the track, as all but one (Jimmie Johnson) of his fellow competitors visited pit road to refuel and take on fresh tires.
Flanked only by his close friend Jimmie Johnson, Papis and the #13 GEICO Camry took the green flag with just four laps remaining in the race. At Daytona, four laps can seem like a lifetime and today was no different.
Papis battled hard with good friend and Germain Racing teammate Todd Bodine before Joe Nemechek would give the #13 GEICO Camry a hard push on the final lap. Nemechek’s help would be all Papis needed to rocket by Bodine and secure his place in the Daytona 500. Finishing 15th in the Duel 150 was great, but making the Daytona 500 put Papis over the edge as he broke into tears over the team radio and thanked the Germain Racing team for their hard work. Papis was in, but his good friend Todd Bodine was out. It is the often-overlooked dark side of racing; friends competing against friends. Bodine put forth a valiant effort and spent most of his day running in and around the Top 10 for team owner Kirk Shelmerdine, drawing praise from everyone around the sport.
When Papis climbed out of his #13 GEICO Camry, his emotion was evident and his loss for words was even more moving.
“I’m so happy right now for this GEICO Team and I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Papis said with tears flowing down his cheeks. “This is special and it’s huge for our sponsor GEICO and for this Germain Racing team. We’ve all worked so hard and it paid off today. It’s really great and I feel speechless. I don’t even know what to say. I just know that my father is looking down right now and he’s proud of what we’ve done here today. We’re going to be racing in the Daytona 500!”
While Papis arrived at the track this morning a ‘rookie’, he departed a veteran. The checkered flag today ensured that Papis would take his place among racing’s greatest. He will become one of the only racecar drivers in history to compete in Formula One, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Indianapolis 500 and now the Daytona 500.
Before Papis takes his place in the Great American Race on Sunday, he will first pilot the #9 GEICO Toyota Tundra in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race. Not long after he finished the Gatorade Duel, he climbed into his GEICO Tundra and qualified 11th for Friday night’s race.
The NextEra Energy Resources 250 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race is on Friday, February 12th, and it will be televised live on SPEED beginning at 7:30 PM (ET), while the Motor Racing Network (MRN) will carry the live radio broadcast.
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