The Frontstretch: 2009 Season Review: Max Papis by Thomas Bowles -- Tuesday December 15, 2009

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2009 Season Review: Max Papis

Thomas Bowles · Tuesday December 15, 2009

 

2009 Ride: No. 13 Germain Racing Toyota
2009 Primary Sponsor: GEICO
2009 Owners: Bob Germain
2009 Crew Chiefs: Mike Hillman (Feb. – May), Peter Sospenzo (Jun. – Aug.), “Bootie” Barker (Sep. – Nov.)

Stats: 15 Races, 0 Wins, 0 Top 5s, 1 Top 10, 0 Poles, 43rd in Points.
Best Finish: 8th – Watkins Glen.
Average Finish: 31.1.

High Point: While continuing to struggle on ovals, the Italian road racing specialist had his best runs exactly where you’d expect — on Sprint Cup’s two road courses. Settling in with a solid 12th place finish out in the wine country of northern California, his run at Infineon this June became merely a preview of what Mad Max could do when allowed to turn both left and right. At Watkins Glen in August, the GEICO Toyota was a true contender, using solid strategy to work towards the front as Papis charged to an eighth place finish — his first and only top 10 on the Cup circuit to date.

Low Point: Papis’ difficult transition to stock car’s highest level was typified by what happened in between the road courses. Running with a part-time team and without the benefit of a “locked in” spot, he failed to qualify a total of six times in 2009, including both attempts in between starts at Infineon and Watkins Glen. Those failures (one due to rain) caused him to miss two of the sport’s most prestigious summer races, the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

Summary: Running with a team new to the Cup level, everyone understood Max Papis’ longshot rookie bid would struggle to get off the ground this season. Running just 21 races, the part-time No. 13 car formed a technical alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing but struggled to find its footing from the start, as Germain Racing possessed neither the resources nor the reference notes to get competitive in Cup right away. Add in Papis’ inexperience on oval tracks, and you get this troubling stat: 11 starts without a top 30 finish on oval tracks less than 2.5 miles in length. That left Papis a distant third in the rookie race, hardly a blip on the radar screen while fellow freshmen Scott Speed and Joey Logano spent the year running circles around him. Overall, he proved the latest example in a long list of open-wheelers who’ve struggled to transition to stock cars instantaneously before moving up to the sport’s top level full-time — especially when faced with as little experience as Papis’ 11 combined career starts in Cup, Nationwide, and Trucks.

Still, even in the most difficult of years there’s always a bright spot or two. Papis found a knack for restrictor plate racing, running 29th and 18th in both Talladega starts while learning the all-important art of drafting. And at Charlotte in October, he had perhaps his most competitive car on an intermediate oval, showing serious signs of progress before the engine let go with less than 50 laps left.

2010 Outlook: Entering his second season behind the wheel of a Germain Toyota, Papis’ team will tackle the Cup circuit full-time. Continuing their alliance with MWR, crew chief “Bootie” Barker is expected to return and continue building a program around which his driver can steadily improve. One of the sport’s most underrated crew chiefs, he clearly made a difference after replacing Peter Sospenzo on top of the box this September.

But all the technical fixes in the world can’t replace the need for pure driving talent. Rusty Wallace has said it takes an average of three years for open-wheelers to fully adjust to their new surroundings, so with that in mind — along with the limitations of a single-car team — just spending the year locked in the top 35 would be a major accomplishment. And a top 5 finish anywhere, even a road course, would have to be considered a major miracle.

2009 Frontstretch.com Grade: D.

Contact Tom Bowles

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