Italian Max Papis is excited about his first Daytona 500 outing, having won one of the transfer spots for the NASCAR Sprint Cup season opener last Thursday in his qualifying race.
Papis, who drives the No. 13 Toyota Camry under the Germain Racing banner, will be the first Italian to compete in the "Great American Race" since Italian native Mario Andretti contested the 500 for the last time in 1968, having won it a year earlier.
The former Formula 1 and Champ Car driver earned his spot partly due to a strategy gamble, when he stayed on the track along with eventual race winner Jimmie Johnson, while the leaders pitted for tires a handful of laps from the checkered flag. However, Papis had to get past Todd Bodine on the last lap, something he managed after the former Truck Series champion hit the wall approaching the end of the race, while also fighting for a spot in the main event.
Papis reckons making the field at Daytona to be one of the most meaningful achievements of his racing career.
"This track for me, it's really special," said Papis. "I came over here in '96. It was my first-ever race in America, racing the Rolex 24 Hours. A lot of satisfaction for me in that race.
"For me, this being the first 500 is just a dream coming true. It came to great teamwork. [Robert] "Bootie" [Barker, crew chief] left me up there in front. It was hairy. Sliding around, everybody pushing me, kind of fell a little bit in the black. He told me that's the black car you need to pass. That's it. Kept it wide open as hard as I could and slid around and made it happen."
Papis believes NASCAR is the toughest form of racing he has ever competed in. The Italian, who has served as test driver for Sprint Cup champion squad Hendrick Motorsports, has had to make the field for races based on his qualifying speed, and sometimes struggled to do so.
He believes the cream of America's racing talent is in NASCAR – which explains for him why there are not enough American drivers in open-wheel racing.
"Compared to everything else I've done, you can kind of take it easy a little bit or breathe for a second," says Papis. "Here, if you breathe, they run you over, literally over. That's why I say that for me, you know, I've been able to race in Formula 1, I've been lucky to drive a Champ Car, IndyCar, whatever, but these guys... Now I know when they were complaining before, why all the American drivers they're not in open-wheel racing? Because they're over here."
Papis, one of only four non-guaranteed drivers to earn a place in the Daytona 500 through the Duels, out of 15 who were fighting for a spot in the qualifiers, will start today's race from 31st on the grid. On Saturday night he led laps and was a top contender in the Camping World Truck Series race, but his hopes of a strong finish were dashed when he hit the wall following contact with Nelson Piquet Jr.