DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson and Travis Pastrana — two drivers with wildly different experience levels in NASCAR’s major leagues — embraced Wednesday evening after both reached a common goal in qualifying for the Daytona 500 field.
Johnson — the seven-time Cup Series champion with 83 wins and 686 career starts — posted the 23rd-fastest lap in the No. 84 Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet that he’ll drive in a partial schedule this season. Pastrana — a rookie who drove a Cup Series car for the first time Wednesday — was 25th-fastest to seal up his debut in the No. 67 23XI Racing Toyota.
Johnson and Pastrana were the two fastest drivers among the six non-chartered, “open” entrants during the qualifying session. Reigning Truck Series champ Zane Smith was 29th, tops among those who have yet to firm up their Daytona 500 fate. He will join Austin Hill (32nd), Chandler Smith (41st) and Conor Daly (42nd — did not start) in trying to grab the remaining two open berths for the “Great American Race” through Thursday night’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel qualifying races (7 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM).
Pastrana followed Johnson in the qualifying order. When the official word came that they had both locked in, Pastrana dismounted on pit road and went straight to Johnson to touch off the celebration.
“I am so very fortunate to be here,” said Pastrana, a versatile action sports star with a rich background in motocross and rally racing. “This is something that’s not about the money. It’s not about anything. It’s just about trying to be a part of the “Great American Race” and to have an opportunity to qualify with such a great team and to be brought on with so many people around me that are helping me to do the best that I absolutely possibly can. At the end of the day, we’re in it to do the best that we can. Damage or no damage, my goal is to obviously not be the cause of any of it and try to do the best we can. But hey, I’m going for it. So we’ll see what happens.”
Both drivers are making returns to NASCAR this year. Pastrana’s only full season was an Xfinity Series campaign with team owner Jack Roush in 2013, and he’s been an occasional competitor in Craftsman Truck Series races in recent years. Johnson is back for a limited schedule after two years away racing IndyCars and sports cars, all since his retirement from full-time Cup Series driving after 2020.
Johnson tested last month at Phoenix Raceway to get familiar with the Next Gen car, but he said Wednesday night’s experience on the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway wasn’t exactly heartening as he got up to full song for the first time with the current superspeedway package.
“I didn’t know what to expect honestly,” Johnson said. “I mean I really didn’t. To be the fastest of the non-chartered cars or being the middle of the pack. In the situation we’re in and how late this program got off the ground, really happy with where we landed. And it was just about making the race. I’m so thankful we don’t have to race through the Duels, so we definitely hit our marks.”