NASCAR

Papis happy, Mears dejected in Daytona qualifiers

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP)

Max Papis was beaming. Michael McDowell joked that he'll finally be known for something more than one spectacular crash.

Casey Mears just stared straight ahead, struggling to put his disappointment into words.

Away from the flashbulbs in victory lane, Thursday's Daytona 500 qualifying races stoked the full range of emotion from drivers whose place in the sport isn't completely secure. For Papis, McDowell, Mike Bliss and Scott Speed, making Sunday's race could provide a significant career boost.

``I mean, where in the world, a guy comes from an 800-people village in the north of Italy has a chance to do the '500'?,'' Papis gushed. ``Can you believe that?''

Mears, meanwhile, is out of the field and now faces an uncertain future.

A member of one of racing's most famous families who once raced for Hendrick Motorsports, Mears now drives for a team that doesn't have the budget to commit to running beyond the first two months of the season.

``Imagine the worst thing and put it in your own words,'' Mears said. ``That's basically it. What do you say? Real bad? Real, real bad? The worst?''

That's a rough ride - but perhaps not as rough as the one McDowell experienced during qualifying at Texas in 2008. He hit the wall and barrel-rolled his car down the track. McDowell wasn't hurt, but the clip became a YouTube sensation.

Asked if making the Daytona 500 gave him a new career highlight reel to show off, McDowell joked, ``You don't like Texas?''

Then McDowell, whose Prism Motorsports team is still searching for enough sponsorship money to race the full season, talked frankly about the pressure drivers face when they're not established stars racing for top teams.

``You're only as good as your last race in this sport - especially when you're a guy like myself, sort of just barely hanging on,'' McDowell said. ``That's how I feel, every weekend I got something to prove and justify my existence in this sport. It's a very difficult deal. It's a lot of pressure.''

It's a similar situation for Bliss, who is trying to make it with the fledgling Tommy Baldwin Racing team.

And Bliss did it in a backup car after crashing in practice Wednesday, putting his team in a tough spot.

``It was really disappointing,'' Bliss said. ``I watched Tommy and those guys work on that car from November until when they loaded it up. They worked hard on it. And this was a car that ran last year, and it just got decaled up and thrown in the trailer.''

Then there's Papis, who has spent several years trying to make a name for himself in NASCAR after racing in open wheel and sports cars.

Papis called his run ``hairy'' and ``awesome,'' then declared that he no longer wanted to be known as a road course racing specialist. Instead, he wants people to call him ``Mad Max, the NASCAR racer.''

Papis' Germain Racing team has had success in the truck series and now is trying to make it in Cup, but doesn't have sponsorship to run a full season.

``I feel I'm an underdog every day,'' Papis said. ``I drive my car, I think every lap I do, this is the last time I'm going to drive a Cup car. I want to drive the best I can. For me, every lap I do, every race I do, is like it's a reason why I should be here, and I drive it like that.''

Like Papis, Speed is an open-wheel driver who has been trying to make it in stock cars - with mixed results.

``I have so much more confidence and so much of a better feel for the car, what's going on around me,'' Speed said. ``For sure it's making a big difference already.''

It was a crushing day for Mears, who appeared to be on the verge of racing his way into the field in the closing laps but had to take his foot off the gas and lost positions when another driver got loose in front of him.

Mears said car owner Raymond Key is committed to running the first two months of the season.

``When you come here, you know the fact is, you've got to qualify in, you've got to race in,'' Mears said. ``And the way that it went down is frustrating, because we were in comfortably, it looked like.''

Tagged: Scott Speed, Casey Mears, Mike Bliss, Max Papis, Scott Speed, Michael McDowell

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