DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Travis Pastrana has jumped out of a plane without a parachute but never driven NASCAR’s top Cup Series car over 40 mph. He never took the car for so much as a single spin on the high-banked, high-speed track at Daytona International Speedway. And despite a previous dalliance with NASCAR, Pastrana had never before tried to qualify for the Daytona 500.
So as the action sports star found himself standing on the grid, just a car apart from good friend and seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, it might have been a great time for Pastrana to ask for some last-minute pointers from the two-time Daytona 500 winner.
Johnson has just returned to NASCAR after a two-year stint in the IndyCar Series and, like Pastrana, the aging superstars were not guaranteed a spot in Sunday’s season-opening spectacle.
But the duo skipped the small talk about entry or exit or throttle or speed. Johnson’s two daughters were at a nearby horse competition; Pastrana’s at a cheerleading camp. And that’s what a couple of dads chatted about before one of the most pressure-packed moments in both their NASCAR lives.
Pastrana watched Johnson, making select starts this season, attempt his lap on the video board. It was a rough and bumpy ride with his new Legacy Motor Club team that alarmed Johnson, who after two years away has no idea what the Next Gen car is supposed to feel like.
“You are a professional man!” Pastrana gushed to Johnson after the session.
When it was Pastrana’s turn to qualify in a Toyota from 23XI Racing, his ride was much smoother and, like Johnson, fast enough for the duo to claim two of the four open spots in the 40-driver Daytona 500 field.
Just like that, a Daytona 500 champ and an X Games champ will be racing for one of the biggest prizes in NASCAR.
There were six drivers vying for the spots, with Johnson and Pastrana earning the two awarded through time trials. The other four were set for a pair of Thursday night qualifying races that finalize the field.
“Sure, I want to win. I get in a car, that’s the standard thing, that’s what I want to do,” Johnson said. “But this is more about the long game. This is more about being a part of a growing race team than it is really about that fierce competitive side that I’ve always operated by.”
Pastrana, who at nearly 40 had turned his attention to landing a Dayonta 500 slot, erupted in celebration after his qualifying lap. He was approached by Kurt Busch, the former Cup champion, Daytona 500 winner and current 23XI/Toyota coach who was forced to retire last season after suffering a concussion in July that is still not healed.
Busch offered a dose of reality for Pastrana: “Kurt Busch came right up to me at the end and said, ‘OK, now we get to work.'”
Pastrana’s definition of work might not fit the usual vernacular inside NASCAR.
This is the same hell raiser who has YouTube videos with 1 million views dedicated to his most gnarly crashes. So getting behind the wheel of arguably the safest car in NASCAR history might not necessarily provide the same challenge of, say, a daredevil backflip into the Grand Canyon.
Pastrana, though, was expected to win all those gold medals and make fans hold their breath over each terrifying trick. Unlike the 47-year-old Johnson, who believes he can win Sunday, Pastrana is just happy to give the race a try. His team, team co-owned by Michael Jordan, had the capacity to enter Pastrana and Toyota had a fast-enough engine to get him into his dream race.
“If I can get this car on the lead lap to the finish line, I never said that before about anything but winning, but that will be a win,” Pastrana said.
It might be fitting if Pastrana can stick around for the finish and somehow watch Johnson win a third Daytona 500. Pastrana went on one of his first dates with his wife at the NASCAR track in Fontana, California, many years ago to watch Johnson race. Pastrana said he kept Johnson up late talking about one day making a run at his own NASCAR career.
He attempted a NASCAR career a decade ago and raced the full Xfinity Series schedule in 2013 for Roush Fenway Racing. Pastrana did finish 10th at Daytona in 2013 in the second-tier Xfinity race and — while the cars have evolved and he’s still a stock car novice — perhaps it offers a little slice of potential that maybe he could be competitive on Sunday.
That is, if he can just get to the end.
“I said to my wife, ‘Look, I want to spend more time home. I want to step back a little bit. But right now this is the best chance I have, the best success I’ve had in vehicles to put my best foot forward,’” Pastrana said.
AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer contributed to this story
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