WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Max Papis gave himself an A-plus grade for his 15th-place effort filling in for injured three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champ Tony Stewart in Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at The Glen.
It was perhaps the hardest-earned 15th place the Italian sports car veteran has ever had. It was certainly the highest profile one.
With Stewart watching the race from a North Carolina hospital bed while recovering from multiple surgeries to repair a severely broken right leg, all eyes were on Papis -- expectations high, the spotlight bright.
And there was plenty to see.
Papis, who qualified Stewart’s No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevy 29th, was spun out by Greg Biffle early in the race and then collided with pole winner Marcos Ambrose late in the race, but he still climbed up through the field in the waning laps -- persevering in the same gritty spirit that has endeared Stewart to fans for decades.
“I drove the wheels off this and am super proud of keeping the seat of 'Smoke' as warm as I could,’’ Papis said. “I felt I did a pretty good job and I’m proud of myself.’’
Then, he added with a smile, “Now it’s time for people that know how to turn left only.’’
After selecting Papis to fill in on the circuit’s last road course of the season, the Stewart-Haas Racing team said this weekend it hopes to name a more permanent replacement or replacements by Monday for the oval-only finish to the season.
The team has indicated it would prefer a Nationwide driver to fill-in. It’s likely they will name one driver for next week’s race at Michigan -- when there is a scheduling conflict with the Nationwide Series -- and then someone to take the seat on a more consistent basis thereafter.
“We would love to put somebody in the car until Tony comes back,’’ SHR Competition Director Greg Zipadelli said Friday. “The problem we are faced with next week is if you look at the schedules and you lay out the Nationwide schedule at Mid-Ohio and us in Michigan they don’t match up very well.
“Somebody would do two half-assed jobs or we can try and find somebody that is out of the norm and put them in the car and try to go to Michigan and do the best we can. Then hopefully maybe Bristol we could pick up with one person that may be able to do the rest of it and obviously it would be a Nationwide driver. “
There is still no timetable for Stewart’s return, or if he will return this season. He suffered a broken tibia and fibula in his right leg in a crash while leading a sprint car feature race in Iowa late Monday night.
He has had two surgeries already and may yet need another. The team tweeted Sunday night that Stewart had been released from the hospital and was "resting as comfortably as he can at home."
It’s doubtful Stewart would be back in time to maintain his position in the driver standings. Although he has a victory and held one of the two Chase Wild Card positions entering the weekend, his absence from the field Sunday dropped him six spots in the standings to 17th.
Certainly Papis’ showing gave Stewart a little something to smile about. Biffle apologized to Papis after the race for spinning him out and Ambrose conceded afterward that something was wrong with his car as he raced Papis late in the afternoon.
And Papis’ performance Sunday was good enough to keep the No. 14 car ranked 11th in the owners’ points, the first Wild Card position.
“I’m really proud of everything we have done together here at Stewart-Haas Racing,’’ Papis said. “It was a tough call to come here at the last minute like this. But I’m really proud of the job I did. We almost had a top-10.
“We proved, never give up and I think that’s the spirit Tony wanted me to have. I pushed, I went from last to the middle of the field, fought really hard and brought it home the best I could.’’