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Why Travis Pastrana thought it was now or never for Daytona 500 dream

“I was giggling when I woke up this morning. I’m like, ‘Man, this is really happening.’”
Travis Pastrana is trying to qualify for Sunday's Daytona 500.
Travis Pastrana is trying to qualify for Sunday's Daytona 500. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
Published Feb. 15|Updated Feb. 16

DAYTONA BEACH — Travis Pastrana has jumped out of a plane without a parachute, leaped over buses on a bike and won gold medals at the X Games.

But waking up Wednesday with a chance to qualify for Sunday’s Daytona 500? That was cool.

“I was giggling when I woke up,” Pastrana said during Wednesday’s Daytona 500 media day. “I’m like, ‘Man, this is really happening.’ "

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The veteran racer and action sports icon, 39, has watched “The Great American Race” for as long as he can remember. He and his family had annual Daytona pools — $5 per entry — and would draw car numbers out of a hat.

Travis Pastrana recreated three of Evel Knievel's iconic motorcycle jumps in Las Vegas.
Travis Pastrana recreated three of Evel Knievel's iconic motorcycle jumps in Las Vegas. [ JOHN LOCHER | AP (2018) ]

Pastrana tried to climb the NASCAR ladder a decade ago after he won four Rally America championships. He raced in the K&N Pro Series, the Trucks Series and what’s now called the Xfinity Series. But his career stalled, and his racing veered into things such as rallycross. His desire to race the Daytona 500 never disappeared.

It swelled last year as his events included fewer dirt tracks and more pavement circuits, reps that are somewhat applicable to Daytona International Speedway.

Those laps created the push Pastrana needed to pursue Daytona this season. He is married and has two daughters. He’s free when they’re at school and cheerleading, and he’s racing when they’re free. That formula isn’t sustainable.

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“I haven’t been able this past year to be really the father that I’ve wanted to be,” Pastrana said. “I will never have more seat time than I have right now coming into a race, if I do my job as a parent as well as I want to do it.”

Pastrana figures it’s now or never, so he went after it, though he has never raced a Cup car and was limited to five hours in the Toyota simulator plus iRacing events at a buddy’s house.

Travis Pastrana had four top-10 finishes in what's now called the Xfinity Series.
Travis Pastrana had four top-10 finishes in what's now called the Xfinity Series. [ LARRY PAPKE | AP (2013) ]

“I’m hoping the simulator’s not entirely accurate,” Pastrana said, “because if I spin getting up to speed, I’m going to feel really, really dumb.”

The lack of practice put Pastrana’s goals in perspective. For the first time in his career, simply making the field would qualify as a victory. He entered Wednesday night’s qualifying as calm as he could be because he prepared as well as he could. He digested a 193-page report he was handed on the basics of drafting along the 2½-mile superspeedway.

His 23XI teammate, Bubba Wallace, said Pastrana is trying to take in as much as he can.

“He just sees, like, a bunch of algorithms going off in his head,” Wallace said. “I kind of feel bad for him.”

Pastrana doesn’t sound as if he needs any pity. He’s glad to have latched onto a promising team run by Michael Jordan and three-time Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin. His No. 67 Toyota should have the equipment and resources necessary to be competitive.

And as some of Pastrana’s action sports friends reminded him this week, he’s “literally living the dream.” Sponsorships from Black Rifle Coffee and clothing company Dixxon Flannel Co. covered many of the costs, though he said the costs to repair any damage would come out of his kids’ college fund.

“This is the biggest platform I’ve ever been on,” Pastrana said. “I don’t really have a lot to lose, other than money and pride.”

What he has to gain is a bucket-list experience. He idolized Jimmie Johnson as he was coming up as a racer and still considers some Cup drivers his heroes. The idea of battling Johnson for one of the final spots in NASCAR’s biggest race is hard for him to comprehend.

So, too, is that fans are going to pull his No. 67 in their betting pools.

“I just know that someone in my family is going to draw that 67, throw it on the ground and be like, ‘Doggone it!’ " Pastrana said. “Hopefully we’ll do well enough in the duels that whoever gets my number in our family is going to be excited to hold it.”

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.