By Jacob Seelman, Guest Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Though the brightest spotlight was on Alex Bowman after Daytona 500 pole qualifying Wednesday night at Daytona Int’l Speedway, two of the six non-chartered teams on the entry list were able to breathe a sigh of relief by locking into The Great American Race via their qualifying speeds.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, driving for Legacy Motor Club, and 23XI Racing’s Travis Pastrana punched their tickets into the 65th Daytona 500 by timing in 23rd and 25th, respectively, during single-car time trials under the lights at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
Johnson and Pastrana were the fastest two among the six Open teams attempting to race into this year’s Daytona 500, guaranteeing that no matter what happens during Thursday night’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel qualifying races, they’ll be in the 40-car starting field come Sunday afternoon.
That didn’t mean that there wasn’t some worry to start the night, however.
“Oh my gosh, the experience was way different than I anticipated,” Johnson explained after qualifying. “The ride quality was much rougher. I didn’t know if that was supposed to happen or not. Then when I pulled it into fifth gear … which is weird to go to fifth gear, the drag of the vehicle and the RPM dropped really far. I didn’t know that was normal.
“The entire lap I made around, I thought something was potentially wrong with the car. It didn’t feel very fast,” he added. “But once I crossed the finish line, I heard we had a good lap. It was stressful out there, more stressful than I intended it to be.”
From Pastrana’s perspective, Wednesday’s qualifying session was one of the “most nerve-wracking moments” of his motorsports career.
“This is definitely the first time I went to an event really concerned I wouldn’t qualify,” Pastrana admitted. “Trying to hit my marks, I missed my second shift. I didn’t step off the gas enough and double pulled in the backstretch. I just blew it.
“But they said, ‘Hey, whatever you do, don’t touch the brake,’ and somehow it all worked out.”
Wednesday was the first time since his rookie season in 2002 that Johnson had to worry about qualifying into the Daytona 500.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner told Kickin’ the Tires that it was “definitely” a different experience than he’s been accustomed to in the past.
“It is a huge relief now that it’s over, but I came down here for my rookie season when the (No.) 48 team was just started up and we had to get in through qualifying. That was a very stressful moment,” recalled Johnson. “So I’ve kind of fallen back on that experience, although it was 20-something years ago now.
“I’m just so thankful that the Legacy Motor Club team put in the effort that they did to really help me,” he continued. “I’m not joking: when I was at the shop last week, Noah [Gragson]’s team, Erik [Jones]’s team, they were all on my car. Their cars were still sitting there with a lot of work to be done. This was a huge collaboration and effort I owe to the entire shop.
“[Crew chief] Todd Gordon did a fantastic job of leading these guys. Both our full-time teams played a crucial role for our car being prepared and fast enough to get in today, and I really appreciate them.”
For his part, Pastrana admitted that now that he’s in the Daytona 500, he can start thinking about what he’ll need to do to actually perform on race day.
“It was funny because everyone was celebrating and excited, and [former Daytona 500 winner] Kurt Busch came right up to me at the end and said, ‘OK, now we get to work,’” Pastrana said. “It’s cool, though. When Denny brought me on to the team, he was the first one that said, ‘You’re going to have to work your way in. We don’t have a charter for you, but we can give you a car that I believe you can be capable of helping our team with and making the show in.’
“To have the opportunity now to try to start learning and try to figure out how to do the best that I can as a teammate to get up there, that’s what it’s about going forward.”
Pastrana’s co-owner and fellow driver, Denny Hamlin, qualified his own Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 26th on Wednesday but admitted that his focus was more on the cars he owns – at least for one night this week.
“I’ve definitely been an owner tonight,” Hamlin told FOX Sports before his qualifying attempt, after Pastrana’s place in the field had been officially secured. “We feel like we can win from anywhere, but I’m so happy for Travis to be able to live out his dream and run the Great American Race on Sunday.”
Johnson, meanwhile, may have said it best when he noted that Wednesday “was just about making the race.”
“I’m so thankful I don’t have to race through the Duels,” he added. “I’d say that Travis and I both, we definitely hit our marks.”