CHARLOTTE, N.C. – At least a dozen road course ringers waited for the phone to ring when word spread that Tony Stewart had broken his leg in a sprint car race at Iowa.
Max Papis called Stewart-Haas Racing and told the team he was available to replace the three-time NASCAR champion, and he'll be the replacement this weekend at Watkins Glen International.
It will be Papis' first Sprint Cup Series start since 2010, but it will be his 13th career start at Watkins Glen. More important, he's got some familiarity with the car he'll be racing this weekend: Papis was the test driver for SHR last month as part of the team's R&D program at Road Atlanta and the slender Italian said he joked the seat was a natural fit.
"I didn't talk to Tony, I sent him an email when I was testing his car telling him that his lap belt fit me," Papis said Tuesday. "It was actually funny stuff. I don't tell you the answer."
His time with the team this weekend is likely a one-off as SHR will probably go to an oval specialist the remainder of the time Stewart is sidelined. But Papis jumped at the opportunity, even though he was scheduled to run the Grand-Am race Saturday at Road America.
He was part of the winning effort in his Grand-Am class two weeks ago at Indianapolis, and was grateful to be considered by SHR for this weekend's opportunity.
"Obviously this, I don't look at this like a career-changing (opportunity)," he said. "I'm just going to go out there and enjoy every lap I have, enjoy every second I have with the guys, and keep that seat warm for Smoke until he's going to come back. And who knows? Maybe in the future we're going to have some laughs to share about what I did in this car or anything. You never know.
"Sometimes if you push for opportunities, they don't come, and sometimes things come because of reasons," he continued. "The things that I'm the most proud of is the fact that I'm even considered (for) this opportunity. There are hundreds of guys out there that can drive this car, but I always say it's not about the money you make, it's not about anything that you do, but it's about the story you write. And I guess that so far I've been writing a pretty decent story to get a call from Stewart-Haas Racing."
NEWMAN BENEFITS: Tony Stewart left Pocono Raceway ranked 11th in the Sprint Car standings holding the first wild card in the Chase for the championship field.
His injury has blown the race wide open with five races remaining to set the 12-driver field.
It's not clear how many races Stewart will miss — Stewart-Haas Racing has said they'll know more after his second surgery on his broken right leg — but they no longer consider him a factor to make the Chase.
The biggest benefactor, ironically, is teammate Ryan Newman.
Newman became a Chase contender two weeks ago with his win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but at 15th in points needed a lot of help in front of him to claim the second wild card. He should gain ground once Stewart misses his first race Sunday, and competition director Greg Zipadelli said the SHR focus now shifts to Newman.
"Well, our focus has always been getting (Stewart) and (Newman) in the Chase, they both obviously had opportunities to make the Chase," Zipadelli said. "Our focus was to give them equal attention. I think obviously now that the 39 is our only chance, we will do whatever we can to help. I don't know that it's any more than what we have been doing, but we'll certainly do our best to work together as a team, and if there's anything they need, we will certainly do our best to give them what they need to have that opportunity."
STAYING PUT, PROBABLY: Four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti and team owner Chip Ganassi have an understanding. As long as Franchitti feels his No. 10 car can run with the leaders, he wants to come to work.
Franchitti has every intention of clocking in next year. The 40-year-old Scotsman said during last weekend's visit to Mid-Ohio he "definitely" would like to drive for Ganassi in 2014. A deal may be a formality, but it doesn't appear imminent. Franchitti and Ganassi have worked on a series of one-year contracts since Franchitti returned to the circuit full-time in 2009 after a miserable stint in NASCAR.
"I would love to come back next year," Franchitti said. "Chip would like me to come back. Target would like me to come back. The team would like me to come back. So we are all on the same page but we haven't anything to announce yet."
But both Ganassi and team manager Mike Hull both told The Associated Press during the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race last month they expected Franchitti to be driving for them in 2014.
Franchitti finished third behind Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Charlie Kimball at Mid-Ohio and is sixth in the points with five races remaining — a remarkable comeback from last in the IndyCar standings at the start of the season. Though he is a distant sixth in points and hasn't won since the 2012 Indianapolis 500, Franchitti believes there's still plenty of gas left in the tank to chase a fifth championship and a fourth Indy 500 win.
"If I'm competitive and if I'm enjoying it, then I'll keep doing it," Franchitti said. "Those two are pretty closely linked. If I'm not competitive, I won't be hanging around long."
BUSCH'S PUSH: Kurt Busch just might Moneyball his way into the Chase.
Small team, small budget. Some help from NASCAR's big boys. It all could add up to a spot in the field.
His talent never questioned, Busch still may be the surprise entrant in the 12-driver field. He's winless and in 13th in the standings, but only 11 points out of the 10th and final guaranteed spot.
Busch, the 2004 Cup champ, is on a hot streak at the right time. He matched a season-high with his third-place finish last week at Pocono and has four top 10s in his last six races, all while putting Furniture Row Racing on the map.
"What I'm happy about is this group of guys, we're small, but we can shoot from the hip a lot and make up a lot of ground by being aggressive with going back to a track a second time knowing exactly what we did wrong the first time around," he said.
With stints driving for Jack Roush and Roger Penske behind him, Busch's comeback would pretty much be complete if he could make the Chase.
And it could make him attractive to multiple-car organization like Richard Childress Racing.
But that's for another day. Up first, he wants to make the Chase. His called his strong finish at Pocono behind Hendrick Motorsports drivers Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon a "championship-effort type day."
He'll need more of them over the final five races before the Chase is set if he wants to at least compete for a second championship.
"We're just putting the blinders on and worried about the 78, and I'm just excited to go back to these tracks a second time," he said.
Will Graves from Lexington, Ohio and Dan Gelston from Long Pond, Pa., contributed to this report.