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Pastrana still feels lure of NASCAR's challenge

November 22, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Pastrana hopes to one day race in the Daytona 500

His days as a full-time NASCAR driver may be now behind him, but Travis Pastrana loves the sport too much to walk away from it completely. His focus is turning back toward off-road trucks and rally cars, but he would still like to run a Camping World Truck Series race from time to time. He wouldn't mind starting a K&N Pro Series event every now and then. And one NASCAR race in particular still calls out to him.

The biggest one.

"I'd love to race the Daytona 500 one day," Pastrana said last weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, before his final full-time Nationwide Series start. "That’s a huge bucket list thing. I've met enough people and gotten decent enough results that hopefully we could get a sponsor and go in."

Hey, leave it to the world's preeminent motorsports daredevil to dare to dream that big. For now, though, Pastrana is stepping away from NASCAR after a full season in the No. 60 Nationwide Series car of Roush Fenway Racing. Pastrana finished 14th in final points and managed four top-10 finishes, but his highlights were buried by a struggle that too often left his blue, pink, and yellow race car in a crumpled heap.

Pastrana, who announced his decision in a Facebook message Nov. 11, said his results this year simply weren't good enough to attract the funding he needed to pursue another season.

"It sucks," he said at Homestead. "It was a decision made over a long term. And still, over the last couple of weeks, I was still asking around, and just seeing what can we piece together. It came down to, OK, you've basically got to go back two levels and we'll try to piece together something. And instead of being paid to do your day job, if you will, it was -- hey, we're going to put a lot of money into this and basically take up all of our kid's college fund. Or, we can try to keep piecing together small stuff, go back to that, and just have fun with NASCAR. And for me, 30 isn't super old, but I'm not 20. We've got to kind of look a little further."

Pastrana harbored no illusions that NASCAR would be easy, and entered the Nationwide Series prepared to face the steepest learning curve of his professional life. And while he very often showed speed, Pastrana struggled mightily with the nuances of racing stock cars on pavement, to the point where he didn't see the progression over time he had hoped for. At midseason, he sat down with Jack Roush and team competition director Robbie Reiser, who hoped to see Pastrana improve and crash fewer cars as he began to return to tracks a second time.

Aside from a few glimmers, it never happened. "My best races that I should have been top-10 in for sure were the ones where I crashed out," Pastrana said. "If I was running bad, I didn't tend to push it that hard. If I was running good, I was like -- 'I'm ninth! I want to be running sixth!'

"It's slaying dragons, as Greg Biffle says in the car. On an average race week, I'll be full to the lock slide probably three to four times. That's not good. … I'm just trying to find that limit, and a big problem for me is, I'm used to cars that I'm very comfortable sliding. These cars are not those types of vehicles, and you're going really, really fast. Even if it's just a little slide, I'm not worried about it, and all of the sudden it hooks up and goes. I need to be more concerned."

It's all a stark contrast to the all-wheel rally cars Pastrana was more accustomed to, which weren't as powerful but were easier to control.

"It's just a matter of trying to find out how to go fast," he said of those vehicles. "Here, I'm trying to not to crash. Every corner, it's like a train crash. My mom's like, 'You're that close to crashing?' I'm like, you have to be. You have to be on the edge. In a rally car, I can get it completely sideways. Maybe that’s because I have more experience in it, but I'm not worried about it. I can get it back under me. Here, if I'm completely sideways, I'm clenched."

And Pastrana was completely sideways too often in a season that featured a number of hard crashes, not all of them his doing, but some which ruined promising runs nonetheless. Looking back, much of what Pastrana learned driving other types of race cars simply didn't translate as well as he had hoped. And the talent level among regular NASCAR drivers was everything it was built up to be -- something reinforced in Pastrana's mind when Scott Speed, who often struggled in NASCAR, moved to rally cars and won an X Games gold medal this year.

"To get within a half-second is one thing, to get every hundredths of a second after that -- these guys are just really specific to what they do," Pastrana said. "Even the road courses, I thought I was going to do really well on, we struggled. These cars are a lot different than what I was used to. And we knew that. It was kind of, jump in the deep end. As long as you're still making progress, I don’t care if we start out 40th, as long as at the end of the year we're running 25th. As long as I feel like we’re making progress. And this year, I feel like I understood a lot of the stuff I needed to get better at, and a lot of that stuff was not progressing. I was working on it, I knew what I had to do, but pavement has always, even on motorcycles, kind of driven me crazy."

In everything else Pastrana has ever raced, he'd always been able to find speed. As difficult as he expected NASCAR to be, and as much as he expected to struggle initially, "I never thought I'd not be successful," he admitted. The faster he tried to go, the slower he went.

Pastrana said other drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Matt Crafton tried to warn him that he needed more time, that plunging into a full Nationwide season with just 10 national-level starts to his name would be asking a lot.

"I've always jumped in the deep end. I knew that they were all probably right," Pastrana said. If he had to do it all over again, maybe he'd have competed more in ARCA or the K&N Pro Series rather than leap straight into Nationwide, though that approach would have presented hurdles of a different kind.

"The problem was, I couldn't do that full-time, because I'd have to fund it through my other endeavors," Pastrana said. "I might have raced a few more years of rally and tried to slowly work up to that. It’s just never been my style, though."

No, his style is to go big, just like when he's hitting the ramp on his motorbike during the X Games. Yet through the entirety of this rough season, there's still something about NASCAR that appeals to him, that stokes his internal fire like nothing else. He had a conversation about it with Nelson Piquet Jr. as they traveled to Phoenix from a rally race.

"Man, I don't have the same adrenaline in rally that I do in NASCAR," Piquet told him. And Pastrana feels the same way, which is why even though his full-time career is ending, last week at Homestead might not have been his last NASCAR event.

"I love driving," he said. "I love the sport, I love the people. I love the challenge."

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