NASCAR: Inside Travis Pastrana’s 23XI Racing decision

Travis Pastrana, 23XI Racing, Daytona 500, NASCAR (Photo by Vince Mignott/MB Media/Getty Images)
Travis Pastrana, 23XI Racing, Daytona 500, NASCAR (Photo by Vince Mignott/MB Media/Getty Images) /

RallyCross and motocross legend Travis Pastrana is set to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut with 23XI Racing if he qualifies for the 65th annual Daytona 500.

The group of six (or more) drivers vying for the final four spots in this year’s 40-car field for the NASCAR Cup Series season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway is stacked.

Just ask Travis Pastrana, the RallyCross and motocross legend who is attempting to make his Daytona 500 debut — and his overall Cup Series debut — in this year’s running of the Great American Race behind the wheel of the No. 67 Toyota for the Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan-owned 23XI Racing team.

“There are only four spots,” Pastrana said to Beyond the Flag when discussing the challenge of simply getting into the race. “We have a great car, but there are another – six official and I think eight that are on the bubble if they’re getting in, if they’re going to give it ago – but I mean you got Jimmie Johnson, two-time Daytona 500 winner, who is trying to qualify.

“You got Conor Daly, he’s had the fastest speed ever at Indianapolis in an IndyCar. These guys understand the draft, they understand speed. You got a couple rookies in there with some really good cars as well.”

He discussed how his deal to attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500, a race he has always wanted to run, with primary sponsorship from Black Rifle Coffee Company came about.

“Dude, I tell you what, it has been such a fun ride to be with a company that like, every year, they’re like, alright, what do you want to do?” he said. “What do you want to do that’s fun? What do you want to do that we can bring in the veteran community or even just first responder community? What can we do that we can hang out with the crowd more, that we can be kind of just a part of what’s going on?

“And then I said the Daytona 500, and they’re like, that’s kind of the opposite! That’s this one big event! I said no, man, it’s Speedweeks! To be able to do something that’s – the 500 is the Great American Race – it’s the one race that didn’t matter if you were into racing or not. It’s kind of like the Super Bowl. Doesn’t matter if you’re into football; you probably watch the Super Bowl. This is the race that I’ve always wanted to do.”

Though Travis Pastrana does have NASCAR experience, he knows that a superspeedway race on the Cup level, especially the Daytona 500, won’t be easy.

“It’s not in my wheelhouse,” he admitted. “I raced NASCAR for a little bit, I had the experience necessary for NASCAR to sign off on it, but this is the only race – and yeah, I want to win, every driver wants to win – but we want to be a part of it.

“I think Black Rifle is one of the only sponsors that said alright, yeah, we want to support you. We’re going to go down there, we’re going to have a great time, we’re going to bring in as many people as possible to have fun with: friends, family, veterans, everything, and let’s give it a go.”

Pastrana’s NASCAR experience includes a full season, but that came 10 years ago in the Xfinity Series (then Nationwide Series).

Things are a little bit different now than they were then.

“Getting used to that aero — 130, 140 mile per hour drifts — that’s something that I had never felt before, 10 years ago in NASCAR, but now I’ve got a lot more experience,” he admitted. “I feel like my driving is the best it’s ever been. But having said that, it is very different. It is high speed. We will never be under 180 miles per hour, except in the pits. Usually I’m not ever over 180 miles per hour on anything else that I do.”

He also spoke about why 23XI Racing was the team with which he and Black Rifle Coffee Company ultimately agreed to a deal to run the No. 67 Toyota.

“This wouldn’t have happened without Black Rifle,” he acknowledged. “At the end of the day, I’m more known for dirt, all-wheel drive, ‘when in doubt, throttle out’. When you get into NASCAR, you’re doing it with a bunch of people who are Indy, NASCAR, F1 – it’s a very different skillset. These guys are a lot more perfectionists, although NASCAR is probably closer to a motocross kind of background, with the cars sliding around a little bit more.

“But Black Rifle was the only company that jumped in and said look, we’re here for a good time. If this is on your bucket list, if this is what you want to do, we’re going to figure out a way to make it happen.”

He explained that he had the opportunity for a guaranteed/chartered entry, but he opted for a third 23XI Racing car instead.

“I had a pretty good relationship with Denny Hamlin and actually a lot of the guys in NASCAR,” he explained. “But everybody else who we talked to was kind of look oh, cool, you can buy a car, or we’ll give you one of the charters, or this, or that.

“But when we called up Denny, and knowing Michael Jordan is the most competitive person in the world, it wasn’t, hey, you can have a car, it was, hey, we believe in you, we’re going to give you the best possible vehicle so that when you go out there, you’re going to help Bubba, you’re going to help Denny, you’re going to help the Toyotas.

“We want you part of this team because we believe that you can actually help us win, whether that’s myself personally or whether that’s Bubba or whether it’s Tyler Reddick or just one of the Toyota drivers in general, or Denny.”

That was all Pastrana needed to hear.

“It was the only company, or the only team really, at least at the beginning, that I really felt believed that I could help them accomplish their goal, and they want to give me everything they can to allow me to get there,” he added. “I think that’s really what set 23XI apart from everyone else who we talked to.”

He spoke about some of the challenges he will have to work through in the Bluegreen Vacations Duels qualifying races — and then hopefully in the Daytona 500 itself.

“When I jumped into stock car racing, I was straight off my fifth U.S. rally championship,” he stated.
“It was either go to Europe or try something completely different. All-wheel drive is all about aggression, like I was saying, and NASCAR, there’s a little more finesse involved. The races are super long. It’s not close your eyes … and see if you make it to the other side like motocross could be at times.

“You can’t really make time. You can lose time. But you have to know, like Scott Speed told me, you can’t carry the car. You can literally carry a dirt bike if you need to. When we go in there, you have to do your homework.

“You have to be in with your crew chief, and the homework we’ve been doing, they spent three hours going over the aerodynamic report on the new cars, and every place, whether it’s the right side or the left side, every inch, any place on that track, even if the wind is blowing a different direction.

“They’re going to tell me something that I’m going to need to know, that, hey, the wind on the backstretch changed five miles per hour. Instead of being on the wall, you want to be off here, or instead of being there, you want to be on the wall. So it’s a lot more to NASCAR than just driving, and I feel like that’s something that’s pretty interesting because everything else that I’ve done has been more up to the rider.”

Pastrana knows he will need to take a slightly different approach to his first Cup Series race, compared to what he is used to in his realm of the racing world, and he is looking forward to the learning experience of it all.

“Going forward is not my issue; it’s going to be settling in,” he said. “I got a great spotter with [Jason] Hedlesky. He’s Matt Crafton’s spotter in the Truck Series. He’s had a lot of experience on kind of looking at the field and saying, it’s getting super dicey, we gotta get out of here, or hey man, it’s looking pretty good up there, you’ve got some teammates around you, let’s push, let’s make a run.

“And looking at the other cars too. Some of the cars will be better pushers, some of the cars will be better at being pushed. Depends on if they’re a little bit tight or a little bit loose. Those are things that I really didn’t understand when I jumped into NASCAR the first time.”

Even knowing that, Pastrana isn’t discounting the competition he will face just to get into the 40-car field for the race, both in the single-car qualifying session (Wednesday, February 15 at 8:15 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1) and then the Bluegreen Vacations Duels (Thursday, February 16 at 7:00 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1).

“Having said that, we have the strongest field I feel like that’s every tried to qualify for the Daytona 500,” he again acknowledged. “My first lap, my first time ever in a Cup car, is going to be qualifying. I will literally get in, fire it up, figure out how to get through the gears, and come to the green on my first lap ever at Daytona in a Cup car.

“That is equally as terrifying as it is exciting! I’ve had a lot of time in the simulator, which is really cool – another great reason to go with the 23XI Toyota involvement there. I spent four hours in there yesterday just trying to figure it out! So it’s been cool.”

While Pastrana can lock into the main event either by being one of the two fastest drivers, among the non-chartered cars, in the single-car qualifying session, 23XI Racing are making sure to put an equal emphasis on race pace for the Bluegreen Vacations Duels.

If he doesn’t manage to lock in on speed, he must finish his Duel race as the highest driver of a non-chartered entry in order to qualify for the Daytona 500 (Sunday, February 19 at 2:30 p.m. ET on Fox).

“All of the above,” he said regarding the team’s approach to making sure he gets into the race. “I think the team’s main focus is to make sure that we have a race car and strategy to win the 500. Even though my goal, if I can go in there, not cause any drama, qualify for the race, be on the lead lap at the end of the race, that’s good.

“But the 23XI team, Denny, Bubba, and Tyler, they want to win. And they want all the help they can get to get there. If I’m in that position at the end, that’s what it’s all about. We’re all racers. We all believe that we can win.”

He knows that the nature of superspeedway racing inherently gives him an opportunity he wouldn’t have elsewhere.

“Restrictor plate races are very different than any other race in the championship,” he said. “I’m not going to jump into a 1.5-mile or a Richmond and be competitive with some of these drivers who do it every single weekend. But there is a little bit of luck that’s involved, and that’s the hard part to know.”

Of course, that element of luck can work both ways, especially with the “big one” always seemingly lurking at the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) high-banked Daytona Beach, Florida oval.

“You can get unlucky really easily, a lot easier than you can get lucky!” he added. “You gotta put yourself in the right position. Right now the emphasis has been on everything. They got the fastest car they possibly can for the single laps, and we have all the information that we need to go out there and put in a good performance.”

As for who he has sought out for advice ahead of his first Cup Series laps, Pastrana had positive things to say about just about everybody within the 23XI Racing organization.

That list includes Kurt Busch, who was under contract to compete in 2023 until a concussion he suffered in a single-car crash during qualifying at Pocono Raceway in July 2022 sidelined him indefinitely.

“Honestly Kurt was probably my initial go-to,” he said. “Kurt Busch, I’ve known him for a long time. Denny has been at every meeting all the way along, which has been really cool to see how involved he is. Tyler I don’t know very well, but he’s been absolutely awesome. We hung out all day yesterday.

“Bubba has probably been the most straightforward. I was just asking a few questions when we were in the briefing. I was like, well, if this is slower to be here, why would we be here? He said, well, they’re not going to follow you.

“If you break away on a certain thing, he goes, look, if you have a lot of Toyotas around you, if Hedlesky is talking, you have to watch out for you, because if I’m behind you or something and if your car is pushing better than any other car is pushing and you prove that you’re not going to spin out, he goes, I’m there. We’re going 1-2 to the finish.”

But a lot of that approach has to do with trust, something that Pastrana knows he will have to earn as a competitor with no previous Cup Series experience.

“But he goes, you have to prove that, you have to earn that,” he continued. “He goes, in the Duels, he’s like, the Toyotas will do the best that we can. But I think Kurt said it best, he goes, look, you can’t make any mistakes. He goes, they’ll get around you, but if they’re pushing you and you’re all over the place, they’re not going to be there.

“You have to earn your respect, you have to earn it quickly, and we’re going to be there to help the best that we can. But you have to be there in a position that we can help you.

“I think that’s the key, like Kurt said. You can’t mess up pits, you can’t overshoot your pit box, you can’t stall it in the pits, you can’t speed in the pits. When you come in for gas, you have to come out with the rest of the Toyotas, with Bubba, with Tyler. You have to give them an opportunity to help you if you need it.”

He knows that some of the other drivers trying to qualify for the race, especially two-time Daytona 500 winner and seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, have already earned that respect from their competitors.

“If we’re going and they only take one from the battle basically going in, the Duel, and you got Jimmie Johnson and you, [Busch] said, Jimmie’s got a lot of respect in there,” Pastrana said. “People are going to work with Jimmie. You have to stay with us, and we’ll help you get there.”

Aside from the Daytona 500, Pastrana is also set to make select starts with Niece Motorsports behind the wheel of the No. 41 Chevrolet in the Truck Series this year. He last competed in the series in 2020 and has made a total of five starts going back to 2012.

He is not taking from granted any of his recent racing experience, and not just in terms of his Daytona 500 preparation.

“This is so freaking amazing,” he said. “It kicked off honestly this week. Going from Sweden, a race in Sweden, a race in Canada, flew the red-eye here, doing the dirt modifieds, and then yesterday I took the day and ran up to Charlotte for simulator time. Getting in the truck, getting in the car, this is like the coolest week ever for me — and now I’m back in Florida.

“This is kind of a grassroots week down here. It started out with the dirt modified, or dirt nationals they call it, and it’s been such a fun ride that’s just basically two weeks of racing.

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“I haven’t slept in like a week. It’s going to be a good time!”