CHARLOTTE, NC – MAY 02: Travis Pastrana, driver of the #45 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet, stands on top of his team hauler during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 2, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) | Getty Images
Travis Pastrana is known for being a daredevil. But now, he gets to remove an item from his bucket list, as he attempts to qualify for next month’s Daytona 500.
Last week, Pastrana, an 11-time X Games gold medalist, was announced to drive a third car for 23XI Racing in the Great American Race. By piloting the No. 67 Black Rifle Toyota, he joins an impressive list of drivers who need to qualify their way into the biggest race of the year. That list includes seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, Austin Hill, Chandler Smith and reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith.
“It was really important for me to have to qualify,” Pastrana said last week during a Zoom call with the media. “I want to have a great car, great team and great people to help me get there. But to go to the event and earn my spot is really important, especially with the fans.
“I didn’t know you were going to have Jimmie Johnson, Helio Castroneves (possibly) and so many other amazing drivers trying to qualify for four spots. It’s going to be an amazing week.”
Pastrana debuted in NASCAR during the 2012 season for RAB Racing, which was owned by industry veteran Robby Benton. There, the action sports superstar struck up a relationship with Denny Hamlin, who saw that the rookie driver was struggling on the track in practice at Richmond. Pastrana recalls Hamlin slowing down for him to follow.
The following year, Pastrana went full time for Roush Fenway Racing. He won the pole at Talladega (Daytona’s sister track), but scored just four top-10 finishes in 33 races. By the end of the year, Pastrana left the sport.
“I gave it a good shot 10 years ago and wasn’t successful,” Pastrana recalled.
But the Daytona 500 opens up the playing field. Pastrana, although running for a different manufacturer at the time, had single-car speed on superspeedways when running in the Xfinity Series on a regular basis. He’s not frightened to go fast, and has mentors like Hamlin, 2017 Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, whom he called a “hero,” and Bubba Wallace in his camp.
One of the biggest factors in Pastrana pursuing this opportunity now is the Next Gen chassis. With the transmissions now being a sequential gearbox, the car shifts similarly to a rallycross car, which Pastrana excels in and owns his own league in Nitro Circus.
But driving for 23XI was another factor. Pastrana knows the competitiveness of team owners Hamlin and Michael Jordan. That means he’s going to get top-tier equipment, compared to if it was with a different team, he believes he would get “the next best car with whatever they have left.”
“I feel like it’s going to behoove everyone for me to have a good car and get in the mix,” Pastrana said. “I think a big reason why I want to go there is because, if I know the owners of this team – they want their drivers to do well. But even if I’m just coming in, they want this team to succeed and want this team to win. They do not want to lose. And even that they just allowed me to come into the team speaks volumes that they believe, at least a little bit, in my ability to go out there and try to help them do that.”
Since knowing he was going to be attempting to make the show, Pastrana has done pit practice with 23XI, where Busch guided him through the ins and outs of the Next Gen car. He hopped on a simulator for a couple of hours, but won’t get another jab at it until the week before heading down to Florida for Speedweek, as he has three events outside of the United States. He predicts he’ll get another three hours on the simulator before taking to the track.
Oh yeah, there’s no practice before the Duel races on Thursday (Feb. 16), either. That means Pastrana is going into qualifying without any track time, as it will be the first time he drives a Next Gen car at speed.
“The opportunity to race in the Great American Race, this is a dream come true,” Pastrana noted, “and I believe I have what it takes to hopefully make the [race] and run confidently in the field.”
Should Pastrana be one of the four open cars to qualify for the 500, he knows from there it’s about being a team player. He will have the least experience in the field on the NASCAR side.
“This is the only time I’ve ever come into an event where winning for me is finishing on the lead lap,” Pastrana said.
Aside from the Daytona 500, Pastrana admitted he reached out to Niece Motorsports about potentially driving a truck at some point during the 2023 season. Pastrana has five Truck Series starts, with the last three coming for Niece.