At nearly 40 years old, Travis Pastrana has been able to do virtually everything one with a brave enough soul could hope to do on both two and four wheels. That is, except to run one race he’s always wanted to be a part of.
A decade ago, the extreme sports star began racing in NASCAR — including a full season in what is now the Xfinity Series — with the expressed goal of fulfilling a lifelong desire to race in the Daytona 500. But after a handful of years, Pastrana’s NASCAR ambitions fizzled out after he found stock car racing wasn’t quite his speed compared to the freedom of MotoCross, all-wheel drive Rally cars and the other racing disciplines that he had mastered.
“NASCAR and pavement, it’s a little bit more to do with … wind, aerodynamics, as well as rear-wheel drive and pavement. It’s very difficult for me,” Pastrana told CBS Sports. “So, I kind of took a step back and then had a lot more pavement experience with high speed stuff, with Gymkhana, with sliding cars at 130-140 MPH. Again, all-wheel drive.
“But really started thinking, I’m like, ‘You know what, I never got to check that off my bucket list. I never raced The Great American Race.'”
Now, Pastrana at last has a chance to check that box. The star of Nitro Circus will attempt to qualify for this year’s Daytona 500 behind the wheel of the No. 67 Toyota for 23XI Racing with sponsorship from Black Rifle Coffee. For Pastrana, The Great American Race is the ultimate goal of a mid-February racing tilt that also includes the DIRTcar Nationals — where he won despite little experience in dirt modifieds — and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.
That kind of ambitious approach to Speedweeks suits the seemingly fearless Pastrana. However, he’s in a situation that he himself admits is “scary”.
As Pastrana’s car does not have a NASCAR Cup Series charter, he will need to earn one of the four Open spots in the 40-car field available for non-chartered cars, which he can do by either being one of the two fastest Open cars in time trial qualifying or by being the top finishing Open car in his Duel qualifying race. Not only that, but Pastrana is just one driver in a loaded field of Open cars that includes seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, stars of the Xfinity and Truck Series, and IndyCar driver Conor Daly.
What’s more, this year will not see a practice session take place before qualifying. Meaning that Pastrana’s first laps in a Cup car at Daytona will be the two on Wednesday night that could well set the tone for his week.
“I have never driven a Cup car past second gear. I got a little bit of time doing some pit practice. Just first, second, second, first, pull it into the pits. But my first lap ever driving a Cup car on Daytona will be my qualifying lap,” Pastrana said. “Toyota’s got a great simulator, they’ve been giving me a lot of time in there, the team has given me some great advice on what to do. But at the end of the day, the car is a lot of how you get in.
“And I didn’t want to take a charter even if that was available, because I know a lot of the NASCAR fans would be like, ‘You didn’t earn your way in.’ We want to do this right.”
Doing it right meant aligning himself with a team that wanted to do right by him, and that wanted to include him as part of their master plan for trying to win the Daytona 500. That’s the approach that 23XI has taken, as Pastrana shared that the program co-owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan was the first to offer Pastrana a serious part of a winning program, rather than take his sponsorship and give him any car they had for the sake of good publicity.
As part of a team that also includes Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick, Pastrana has access to as much information as he needs, including aero and drafting reports, in order to get up to speed on racing on superspeedways. His previous experience in 2013 was with two-car tandems, which came about due to rules packages and repaved surfaces that allowed for two cars to push each other faster than a pack of cars for extended periods of time.
With new rules packages having done away with tandem drafting, Pastrana has to adapt to methods of superspeedway racing different from the ones he learned. Still, he knows from that experience that racing at Daytona gives him the best possible chance to be competitive even as someone who has only moonlighted in NASCAR since 2014.
“Every other event, there’s no way that someone from a dirt car background is gonna jump in and have any chance of being competitive … It’s very, very difficult to be competitive against these drivers that are driving every single day pretty much,” Pastrana said. “But the restrictor plate races, if you can get some help, if you can put yourself in the right position, if you can play chess and play your cards well and get a little lucky along the way – rookies have won this race the last couple years.
“It’s not likely that I will be up there to win, but it’s not impossible. And I think that’s the coolest part about the 500.”
Pastrana’s appraisal of his own chances is a fair one, as he only has four top-10 finishes in 48 races in NASCAR’s national touring series — one of which was a 10th at Daytona in 2013. Given that, Pastrana’s priorities are more to have fun, support his 23XI teammates, and make sure that he does not cause any on-track issue that takes anyone out of the race.
“For me to be a part of this race is my goal,” Pastrana said. “Yes, if I don’t qualify I’ll cry myself to sleep for probably the rest of my life. But at the end of the day, as long as I’m not the cause of anything that ruins anyone else’s day and we can go in there and run respectably, I think this is a success.”
Pastrana’s Daytona 500 bid was made possible by Black Rifle Coffee, a veteran-owned company that he has aligned himself with as he looks toward the next phase of his career and life. The son of a U.S. Marine, Pastrana has long helped with and participated in projects to help veterans, and such outreach is something he hopes to do more of as he spends more time with his family and transitions toward becoming a car-driving influencer as opposed to a full-time racer.
“That’s where Black Rifle wanted to go, and that’s where my future is more at this point,” Pastrana said. “The 500 this year, this is the best that I’ve ever been as a driver. This is the most success that we’ve ever had coming off of two amazing seasons and championships in rally and RallyCross and the Gymkhana Series.
“I believe that this year is kind of my best chance of putting in a good performance. And I’m not saying that I’m retiring, but definitely trying to do less racing and more stuff with the family and with the Black Rifle family in years to come.”