Daytona 500 – Inside Travis Pastrana and Jimmie Johnson’s quest to qualify

Action sports activities icon Travis Pastrana is speaking with a reporter on the Daytona International Speedway media middle on Wednesday afternoon when his eyes dart to a man in a blue hearth swimsuit strolling his method.

“Jimmie!” Pastrana, 39, says as the person approaches.

“Travis. You made it,” seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 47, replies. He smiles broad and pulls Pastrana in for a hug. The two males, one a rookie, the opposite an amazing, are right here with the identical aim: to qualify for Sunday’s sixty fifth working of the Daytona 500.

Johnson and Pastrana are two of six drivers hoping to race their method into the 40-car area. Four will make the grid: two on Wednesday night time and two on Thursday. Despite their pedigrees, qualifying is just not a given for both of them.

Pastrana is returning to the game for the primary time after an inauspicious couple of years in NASCAR’s Xfinity collection in 2012-2013. He’s by no means pushed the NextGen automotive NASCAR debuted final yr. Johnson, who retired from the game in 2020, is returning as a workforce proprietor of the rebranded Legacy Motor Club with fellow seven-time champ Richard Petty. He’s pushed the NextGen automotive as soon as, a few month in the past, however by no means on the banked turns of Daytona’s notorious tri-oval. There is extra pleasure round this yr’s qualifying area, which additionally consists of IndyCar driver Conor Daly and present NASCAR Truck Series champion Zane Smith, than maybe ever earlier than.

“This is truly an honor, man,” Pastrana says. He’s wearing a gray-and-white-flannel hearth swimsuit and black hat. “This is too fun.”

A media scrum gathers to look at their reunion. It’s been just a few years because the two males have been in the identical place, and with their jam-packed schedules this week, they do not know if they will have a possibility for a personal second. So they ask about one another’s wives and daughters. “If I qualify, they get here Sunday,” Pastrana says. “My girls have a cheerleading competition Saturday night.” Johnson says his household arrives a day earlier. “Evie has a horse competition in Tampa on Friday,” he says.

“Are Jimmie and Travis friends?” one journalist asks the group. They shrug. “That would be cool.”

It can be greater than cool. It can be the setup for the best motorsports buddy movie of all time. Forget Cal Naughton Jr. and Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights.” Pastrana, a motocross racer turned freestyle star turned rally champion, and Johnson, a motocross and truck racer turned inventory automotive driver with 83 wins in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup collection, each trying to qualify for Daytona can be half highway film, half motion bromance, with a 20-year friendship at its core. Call it “Daytona Days,” the form of film that is laced with humor, battle, the self-discovery that arises from loss and failure and two of the best American motorsports athletes trying to qualify for the Great American Race.

That story may learn one thing like this:


The first time Johnson and Pastrana actually get to know one another is once they signal on to symbolize Team USA on the 2006 Race of Champions, a global occasion that pits drivers from numerous disciplines in head-to-head racing. Johnson is intrigued by his teammate, however he is not sure Pastrana has the driving expertise or persistence to assist him convey dwelling his second win. “I felt like we had a good chance, but I also felt like the guy was in full ‘send-it mode’ all the time,” Johnson says. “We were either going to win or it was going to be something everybody talked about for years to come.”

But every week earlier than the race, Johnson calls Pastrana with dangerous information: He broke his left wrist. He’d received his first Sprint Cup championship every week earlier and after 5 days of sponsor and media necessities, he was able to rejoice. He flew to Florida to play in a good friend’s charity golf match and the consuming began on the flight down. It continued on the course till round 2 p.m., when Johnson climbed on prime of his golf cart whereas a good friend drove, maybe too quick, and took a pointy flip. He fell. “I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t stick the landing surfing a golf cart,” Johnson says. “I hung TP out to dry.”

When efforts to interchange Johnson fail, Pastrana will get permission to race the occasion solo, the one driver ever to take action. Johnson reshuffles his priorities to turn out to be Team USA’s head cheerleader and, “make sure we threw the best parties,” he says.

Four thousand miles from dwelling and with few commitments exterior of the races, the lads start to appreciate they’re extra alike than they thought. Like how, at 4, they each obtained their first filth bikes: a crimson and white Yamaha PW 50 for Pastrana and a 1979 yellow Yamaha JR50 for Johnson. Or their modest, blue-collar beginnings and the way they every raced trophy vans within the Baja 1000 however crashed out in spectacular trend.

Pastrana had been a fan of Johnson’s for so long as he may keep in mind. Johnson, like so many motocross followers, as soon as believed Pastrana, a champion by age 16, was destined to be the following nice Supercross star. “Then I started hearing about his freestyle motocross interest and the inner racer in me was like, ‘What is this guy doing?'” Johnson says. “He’s supposed to be the greatest talent the sport’s seen. I wasn’t a hater. I just didn’t get it.”

In Paris, Johnson begins to grasp. He’s speaking to Pastrana about techniques throughout a break between races when a observe official interrupts. “He says, ‘Travis, you’re up,'” Johnson says. He turns to see the observe crew has arrange a metallic ramp on the ground of the sector. In addition to racing each spherical, Pastrana can also be the leisure.

Pastrana jumps on his bike, hits the ramp and does a backflip. He comes again, hops off and picks up the dialog with Johnson proper the place he left it. “I watched him switch from goofy Travis to the guy who can go and nail something that can kill him, back to goofy Travis. I would be s—-ing my pants worrying about that backflip. On top of it, he had to focus and race again. His brain works so differently.”

Over two days of racing, Johnson sees Pastrana as a scholar and competitor. No one considers him to be a menace. But he takes Team USA all the best way to the ultimate, the place he finishes second to the Finnish workforce. Johnson loses his voice cheering from the stands. While he watches, it sinks in why a rider with Pastrana’s expertise would stroll away from racing full-time. The man he watched land a backflip in the course of a two-day automotive race would by no means be completely satisfied buckled down by one sport.

“When I got to know Travis and truly understand his DNA, I realized he was destined to be a freestyle, showman-type person his whole life,” Johnson says. “He wasn’t a racer who quit. He was a showman who was trying to make it work in racing.”

At the bar and workforce events, Pastrana sees Johnson as greater than the buttoned-up phenom who at all times says and does the precise issues. “It was really cool to have my hero cheering me on,” Pastrana says. “I got to see that Jimmie’s so much fun. From that point, we became good friends and had mutual respect.” He noticed No. 48 let his hair down, however solely behind closed doorways.

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“I surprised Travis with how relaxed I could be and how much fun I could have. But because of my journey, I couldn’t do that publicly,” Johnson says. “In motorsport, we’re so concerned about chasing the corporate dollar, self-promotion, taking the high road. But that came at a price. Travis is one of the early thinkers who was listening to his heart and said, ‘That’s not my lane.'”


Pastrana steps onto a crimson carpet lined with broadcast cameras as rows of journalists increase their tripods to accommodate his top. At 6-foot-2, he is among the tallest drivers within the area. At every cease, they ask three major questions:

Why Daytona? Why now? Can you make Sunday’s race?

Pastrana solutions with constant particulars and ranging levels of aptitude. When he drops into storytelling mode, he doesn’t use an inside voice. He strikes as if every reminiscence is saved in a distinct a part of his physique and a jolt of an elbow or a nod of his head may knock it free and ship it careening out of his mouth. “I grew up watching the 500 with my family,” he says. “It was a holiday in my house. Racing the 500 is a bucket-list item. It’s my childhood dream.”

But he does not have to do that, set himself up for public failure by returning to a sport the general public watched him fail at a decade in the past. But Pastrana is just not in Daytona to show something to anybody. He’s right here for a similar purpose he needed to land the primary double backflip on a mud bike when nobody believed it was doable: as a result of he believes he can. Because he would by no means forgive himself if he did not strive. Because this may be his greatest and solely probability.

Over the previous few years, Pastrana’s had extra seat time and success than ever in his driving profession. He’s gotten higher on pavement, has sponsors who’re prepared to assist his dream and is prepared for the chance. And there’s one thing else pulling him towards this second: the life he needs after it. “My biggest focus after Daytona is to be the best dad and husband I can,” he says. “And that’s going to take me stepping back from at least some of the racing I’ve been doing.”

Last yr, Pastrana suffered one of many worst accidents and two of the hardest losses of his life. In September, his longtime good friend Ron Meredith died after a crash at a motocross observe. Four months later, Ken Block, his shut good friend, mentor and rally competitor, died in a snowmobile accident. “So much of what I’m able to do is because Ken built a sport around having fun sliding cars,” Pastrana says. “When he and Ron died, I realized life is fragile. I love everything I do, but I need to spend time with my kids because tomorrow’s not guaranteed.”

As for his targets with 23XI, the Michael Jordan-owned workforce that is giving him this chance, “First, my goal is to qualify. That’s a win,” Pastrana says on the crimson carpet. “This is the only event I’ve ever entered without the expectation to win. I want to be part of Sunday’s grid, race confidently and smart, get to the end of the race and not cause drama on the track.”

“Oh no. Did I hear Pastrana say, ‘drama?'” NASCAR champ Brad Keselowski says from the opposite finish of the carpet, loud sufficient for the room to listen to.

“I said, ‘NO drama,'” Pastrana says.

A couple of minutes later, Pastrana walks by Johnson, who’s giving a dwell TV interview. “It’s surreal to say the least,” Johnson says of his return to NASCAR. He speaks with the calm, measured focus and precision of a politician, pausing on key moments to permit the listener area to really feel their impression or chuckle at a well-timed joke. The announcers lean in to listen to him. “Just when you guys thought you were going to get rid of me,” he says, “I’m back.”

Off-camera, Pastrana catches Johnson’s eye and begins leaping up and down, waving his arms, making faces, making an attempt to get him to interrupt.

But like every nice NASCAR driver, Johnson not often breaks.


Pastrana has gathered an A-list crew of motion and motorsports stars at his dwelling for a weekend of debauchery he dubs the “Nitrothon.” Two-man groups of NASCAR, IndyCar, Monster Truck and motion sports activities athletes are competing for bragging rights in go-kart driving, truck racing and, after all, consuming. “People are flipping cars, jumping rental cars into the foam pit,” Pastrana says. “It was the rowdiest party ever.”

Johnson is amidst an unprecedented 5 in a row Cup Series championship run, in the course of NASCAR’s 2008 playoffs, and his schedule this weekend is tight. He has lower than 24 hours between testing and a TV look in New York City. No one actually believes he’ll present. No one however Pastrana, that’s.

Johnson is a day late to the get together when he arrives at Fuji, a Japanese steakhouse not removed from Pastrana’s dwelling in Davidsonville, Maryland. “I walk into the restaurant, and the guys tell me to close my eyes and open my mouth,” Johnson says. “They put an uncooked egg in my mouth and told me I had to eat it.” He does.

After dinner, the group returns to Pastrana’s home for the “Barstool Olympics,” a triple crown of beer pong, foosball and the arcade recreation Big Buck Hunter. Pastrana loves the sport a lot he labored a match into his bachelor get together and competed within the Big Buck Hunter World Championship in Chicago, the place he completed eighth. “There were also bonus points for the team that stayed up the latest,” says Johnson, whose flight to New York leaves at 5 a.m.

Right on script, the competitors comes down to 2: Team NASCAR vs. Team X Games. “I beat Travis in a heads-up shootout on Big Buck Hunter and he loses his mind,” Johnson says.

“It was one of the most devastating moments of my life,” Pastrana says. Win secured, Johnson heads to his resort for just a few hours of sleep earlier than his flight to New York City. Right?

“No way. Now we’re going for the bonus points,” he says. “And guys are dropping like flies. Travis talked a big game, but I’ve noticed he’s not the strongest in the drinking department.”

Sure sufficient, round 2 a.m., Johnson realizes Pastrana has disappeared.

He gathers just a few of the blokes they usually embark on one other spherical of Big Buck Hunter, solely this time, Pastrana is the hunted. They discover a sledgehammer, a leaf blower and a pair of boxing gloves within the storage and return to the home. But Pastrana has locked his bed room door.

One man sledgehammers the door open, one other blows the comforter off Pastrana. Johnson places on the boxing glove. When Pastrana sits up?

“I punch him in the face,” Johnson says.


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Two hours earlier than qualifying, Johnson is again at his bus stress-free and getting centered, having fun with a uncommon quiet second alone. Pastrana is strolling the observe’s entrance stretch, the one driver to take action. Maybe it is his motocross and rally background. “Track walks aren’t really a thing in NASCAR,” Johnson says. Pastrana needs to face on the observe, really feel its steep curves and discover a visible cue for his flip in level for pit lane.

“See that yellow Sunoco sign?” he asks. “If I’m behind other cars, there might be tire smoke, the sun might be setting and I can’t see the yellow line. I know that sign is 20 yards in front of the commitment line, so if I don’t see my lights by then, I know I’m going too fast or too slow. It gives me a reference.” He’s solely pushed the No. 67 automotive on this observe in an iRacing simulator.

He stops, seems again towards the 31-degree financial institution of Turn 4. “You see where the bank drops down?” he says. “Right where that last line is, you’re going to start to get tight, so you need to turn a little sharper before the white line, especially if you’re three wide and heaven forbid, four wide on Sunday. I’m going to shorten that up, run where my tires are on that white line.”

He realizes he is already speaking about Sunday. “I have to get there first,” he says.

Pastrana’s had opposing experiences this week. Most drivers have been supportive, providing their time and tips on driving this observe. Many followers have instructed him they’re thrilled he is right here, bringing new vitality, new sponsors and new supporters.

Then there’s the Twitter trolls. “I know not everyone understands why I’m here or knows my background,” Pastrana says. “They just see me as a TV star and stuntman.” They do not see the scholar who sat alone exterior of his RV this morning studying the almost 200-page doc Toyota supplied to him on drafting methods — for the second time. Or know that he is self-funding any of the harm he causes to the automotive. (Or the truck. He’s additionally racing NASCAR’s Truck Series race on Friday.)

“He could have said, ‘I want to try to qualify and race the 500 to check a box,'” 23XI president Steve Lauletta says. “It’s the farthest from that with him. He came to the shop four times to study, drive the simulator. He worked hard to be prepared to give it his best shot. What we’re trying to do is different and to have somebody who’s been as innovative in his career as Travis has, it’s been a good fit.

“And sure, after all, Michael is aware of who Travis is,” Lauletta says of Jordan. “Everybody is aware of who he’s.”


Pastrana is on his first date with his future wife, skateboard star Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins, when he asks Johnson a question that’s been burning a hole in his brain.

They’re at the 2009 Pepsi 500 in Fontana, California, at Johnson’s invitation. When he wins, Johnson invites them back to his new rig to celebrate with his wife and team. “We have been already just a few drinks in,” Pastrana says.

“I keep in mind he was making an attempt to shotgun beers, poking the outlet together with his thumb,” Johnson says. “I did not need my carpet smelling like beer or for him to bleed out in my new bus. I used to be like, ‘Dude, let’s go exterior.'”

Outside and free to thumb-punch as many beers as he wants, Pastrana decides this is his chance. He has this dream he’s been thinking about forever, but saying it out loud means committing to it.

“What would it not take to race the Daytona 500?” he asks Johnson.

The two men sit down. Pastrana sobers up immediately.

“He stated, ‘You in all probability have the driving ability proper now,'” Pastrana says. “He broke down what NASCAR was and what it might take to achieve success.”

“I keep in mind the dialog,” Johnson says. “Daytona is its personal animal. I instructed him the dedication it takes to run three-cars broad within the large pack at 200 miles an hour is a no brainer for him. I felt like it might be an amazing expertise and one which he may develop into and have an amazing exhibiting come race day.”

“It was a fairly good heart-to-heart,” Pastrana says. “I do not know if he knew it on the time, however that dialog set the whole lot into movement.”


Johnson’s and Pastrana’s teams push their cars into place on the track 15 minutes before qualifying begins. A lucky draw sees them next to each other in line. Johnson looks calm as he talks with his crew chief and poses for photos. Pastrana looks like a tall ball of nervous energy. They walk toward each other and meet in the middle.

“Jimmie, inform me the reality,” Pastrana says. “Am I simply going to spin out within the first nook and appear to be an fool?” Pastrana is trying to figure out what to do about his steering wheel. He’s tall and the car’s frame is tight, so he chose to use a 13-inch wheel, which allows more space for his long arms and legs. He’s heard from older drivers that 15- and 17-inch wheels are smoother. The younger drivers have quick hands and use 13s. But he wants to be smooth. He’s worried he made the wrong call.

“You’ll be high-quality for qualifying,” Johnson says. “Don’t give it some thought proper now. Do not fear about it. But after you qualify, get a much bigger wheel for Sunday.”

In Daytona, Johnson and Pastrana are competitors. But that doesn’t stop Johnson from wanting to help his friend. His racing goals have evolved, too. Growing Legacy Racing Club is his new challenge. He is also committing to fewer races, but he knows how much he can help his team, on and off the track, by making Sunday’s race. Becoming a team owner, he hopes, will allow him a consistent schedule and, “to be extra in sync with my household,” Johnson says.

“Travis has been such an amazing good friend over time and I understand how a lot this implies to him,” he says. “There’s a feel-good vitality that comes with having him right here. As I grow old, significant moments have much more weight to them and our friendship is making the five hundred actually particular.”

They return to their cars, pull on their helmets and climb in.


Pastrana and Johnson sit on the wall at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Louden. Pastrana is between heats at a 2012 Global RallyCross race he will eventually win, and Johnson is drawing on the white speedway wall like Steve Kornacki breaking down NFL playoff scenarios.

“At Louden, he was asking me easy methods to run the road as a result of it is an actual slim candy spot,” Johnson says. “I pulled out a Sharpie and was exhibiting him the road and explaining sure flip in marks. I used to be so completely satisfied to have him round.”

NASCAR is also in town. After Johnson told him he had what it takes to race the Daytona 500, Pastrana put together a program that would allow him to give his NASCAR ambitions a try and later in the day, he will line up for his fifth race in the Xfinity series. Johnson will contest the Cup race the next day.

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Throughout the season, Pastrana leans on Johnson for tactical advice and help navigating his new sport.

“I keep in mind having intense conversations with Travis round driving method at numerous tracks that yr,” Johnson says.

Before Pastrana’s debut in the series, Johnson even films a video spoofing his role as Pastrana’s NASCAR mentor. In it, he dons a mullet wig and teaches Pastrana the “5 steps to turning into a NASCAR champion.” At the end, he picks up gardening shears and gives Pastrana a matching haircut.

NASCAR proves a steep learning curve for Pastrana. He has some success in his two seasons, including four top-10 finishes in 2013 and a pole at Talladega, but he is also largely funding his efforts. He becomes a dad that season and starts to weigh his NASCAR dreams against his daughter’s college fund. He never wins a race and leaves the sport after 2013. “NASCAR chewed me up and spit me out,” Pastrana says. Johnson sees it differently.

“I instructed Travis early on, ‘Find a state of affairs the place you’ll be able to have 5 years to be taught,'” Johnson says. “I do know that is a giant ask of a workforce and a sponsor. But it took me 5 years to grasp the tracks, the vehicles, the setups, the place the candy spot is of a automotive, easy methods to drive it. I suggested him to not front-load his contract with expectations. The extra races he ran, the higher he obtained. I want he had an opportunity to make it to that five-year mark as a result of I feel he may have had his NASCAR dream come true.”


“No. 48! Jimmie Johnson!” On cue, Johnson peels out of pit road. When Johnson crosses the finish, he is the fastest driver of the Open teams, with only Pastrana and Chevy’s Austin Hill, who races full-time in the Xfinity Series and part-time in the Cup, to go.

The two fastest Open teams will qualify tonight on speed. Johnson’s unsure if his time will hold up. It didn’t feel like he got everything out of the car. When Pastrana crosses, he hears he’s .008 behind Johnson’s time, which means Johnson has qualified for Sunday’s race. Pastrana doesn’t believe his time is good enough to hold off Hill.

“Wow. Going round a nook at 180 mph with no suspension and your enamel chattering, you do not really feel that within the simulator,” Pastrana says after his lap. “But I shifted up early from second to 3rd. I double pulled on the again stretch as a result of I did not let off sufficient to shift. I went three-feet broad on that exit off flip 4. All of that provides as much as a automotive size and a half, so I did not suppose it was sufficient.”

But it is. Against all odds, Johnson and Pastrana are the two fastest of the Open teams. They have both qualified for the 2023 Daytona 500.

Johnson later admits to feeling relieved, but in the moment the two-time Daytona champion appears cool. Pastrana leaps from his car with his widest smile of the weekend. He hugs everyone within reach who will let him. Team members, photographers, track officials.

After many, many interviews, he runs toward pit lane and jumps the wall, where his family and friends are gathered. There’s his dad, Robert, who taught him to ride a dirt bike and drive just about anything. “My cellphone was blowing up from family and friends who watched all of it on TV,” Robert says. “They stated they’ve by no means seen Travis look happier.” Lyn-Z agrees. “You may really feel his happiness by way of the images,” she says. There are the sponsors who believed in him and a few friends from home. And there’s Lucy Block and two of her three children, Kira and Mika. When Pastrana sees them, his eyes fill with tears. “Thank you for being right here,” he says as he hugs Lucy.

“Ken would have been right here,” she says.

“He would have,” Pastrana says. “But he additionally would have instructed me I’m an fool for making an attempt to race a automotive I’d by no means pushed.”


Sixteen years after Pastrana raced alone for Team USA, he and Johnson are trying again at the 2022 Race of Champions in Pitea, Sweden. But this time, it’s Pastrana who has bad news.

He broke his back and his hips and has extensive internal bleeding after a BASE jumping accident in Florida. “I used to be in intensive take care of every week,” Pastrana says. He’ll require the use of a catheter for four months. “I used to be simply making an attempt to outlive.”

A day after the accident, he texts with Johnson. “He was excessive as a kite,” Johnson says. “First and foremost, I instructed him I used to be simply grateful he was OK.” The two speak a couple times before Johnson flies to Sweden to team up with replacement driver Colton Herta. The races largely take place on snow and ice. Johnson and Herta, who both grew up in California, have little experience on either. “Colton and I made a decision if we weren’t going to win on observe, we have been going to win within the bar,” Johnson says. “We rattling close to received the entire thing on the observe, and we additionally received within the bar.” Once again, Team USA finishes second.

Johnson doesn’t believe that’s the end of his Race of Champions story. “I really feel like my journey is incomplete,” he says, “and it’ll solely be full after I get to race it with TP.”


Pastrana has just returned from a morning workout at the drivers’ gym, where, atop a spin bike and an elliptical machine, he and Johnson talked race tactics for Sunday. Now he’s having a coffee with Lyn-Z, who flew in last night after coaching cheerleading practice.

Pastrana says he remembers the day in December when he found out Johnson was returning to NASCAR and attempting to qualify for Daytona as an Open team, making Pastrana’s chances slimmer than they already were. “I texted him the center finger emoji,” Pastrana says, “and wrote, ‘f— you.’ He texted again three laughing faces.”

At the time, Pastrana saw his friend as a roadblock. This morning, 48 hours before they take the green flag at the Daytona 500 together, Johnson’s return feels more like a gift. “We’ve by no means been in a race collectively,” Pastrana says. “To begin aspect by aspect with the seven-time champ and have an opportunity to run with him is extraordinarily useful for me.”

Last night in the 60-lap duel races, Pastrana had his first chance to race the No. 67 in traffic. He played it safe and hung near the back, but he wasn’t able to avoid a crash up front and suffered damage to his car. It’ll cost him some money. But it was a good reminder that, even when you play it safe, nothing is guaranteed. Sunday night after the race, he’ll drive with his family to Orlando, Florida, where his girls have a cheer competition next week. Johnson will drive to Sebring for two days of testing for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, then fly home to Charlotte, North Carolina, and drive his daughters to school.

“”We’re playing with house money from here. Both of us will savor the experience,” Johnson says. “That moment before the green flag drops, we’re both going to soak it in the best we can.”