Johnson, Pastrana qualify their ways into Sunday’s 65th annual Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — How can a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and two-time DAYTONA 500 winner make a rookie mistake?

Jimmie Johnson already has—on the simulator.

Johnson left NASCAR racing after the 2020 season and spent two years driving IndyCars. In his part-time return the Cup Series and his attempt to qualify for the 2023 DAYTONA 500, Johnson, as part owner of newly-branded Legacy Motor Club, will be driving a car almost as foreign to his stock car history as the IndyCar was.

Johnson got his first experience in NASCAR’s Next Gen car during a recent test at Phoenix, a one-mile track far different from 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, both in terms of configuration and speed. He spent additional time on a simulator to gain familiarity with the race car NASCAR introduced last year.

“The sim session that I had getting ready for here—although it’s kind of silly to do sim for Daytona running by yourself—I did notice the track was really rough,” Johnson said before time trials on Thursday night. “That was not the case my last time here…

“Then I’ve been advised many times that I need to remember that it’s a sequential (gear) box, and fourth gear is actually back here (behind third)—it’s not forward. I think some guys made that mistake last year and downshifted and blew engines.

“So, just trying to stay disciplined on that. I think the last thing I’ve got to be aware of and remember—there’s five gears, not four. On the simulator, I made that mistake and ran around in fourth gear for one of my qualifying laps.”

Johnson was one of six drivers who either had to qualify on time or race into the field in one of Thursday night’s Duel 150-mile qualifying races. The last time he faced that sort of situation was during his rookie year in 2002—and he won the pole.

“I’m sitting here with seven championships and 83 wins—yes, absolutely it would suck to not make the race,” Johnson said. “But the pressure I had on myself in 2002… life would have seemed like it ended if I didn’t make the race…

“We qualified on the pole in ’02. I don’t think that’s in the cards for us (Wednesday night), but who knows? Maybe lightning will strike twice.”

Well, what was in the cards was the quickest driver among the six as Johnson knows that he’ll have an automatic spot into Sunday’s Daytona 500.

So will Travis Pastrana. He was second among the six open cars.

Johnson ended up 23rd overall (50.202 seconds) while Pastrana was 25th (50.208 seconds).

“Yeah, it is a huge relief,” Johnson said. “Came down here for my rookie season when the 48 team was just started up. We had to get in through qualifying. That was a very stressful moment. So I’ve kind of fallen back on that experience, although it was 20-something years ago now.

“But it was stressful. I’m just so thankful that the team put in the effort that they did to really help me. I’m not joking, when I was at the shop last week, the 42 team, the 43 team, 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.

“Todd Gordon did a fantastic job of leading these guys. The 42 and 43 teams played a crucial role for our car being prepared and fast enough to get in today.”

Johnson compared Daytona 500 qualifying to that of what he endured last year in Indy.

“Yeah, there was a different feeling knowing there’s something bad that can happen, you might not be in the race,” he said. “Did have that sense at the 500.”

However, he noted that once he rolled off pit lane, he felt like something was really wrong. Little did he know, with his inexperience with the Next Gen, it was doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing. Johnson though, felt like he may not even get to make a lap due to what he felt was a terminal issue.

“That’s my first time in a plate car with this new Next Gen car,” he continued. “The experience was way different than I anticipated. 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, the rpm dropped really far. I didn’t know that was normal. So the entire lap I made around, I thought something was potentially wrong with the car. The rpm was really low, didn’t feel very fast.

“I didn’t think it was supposed to bounce like that. The bump-stops and the way you run the car now, trying to maintain a certain aero attitude, all the teams go about it a different way.

“I felt it a little bit at Phoenix with the test session I had there, but this was way different than what I expected. 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.”

Still, even with that lap, he didn’t get out of his car expecting to make it on speed. That’s because of what he felt was an engine issue that plagued his lap.

“The experience, because of the rpm being so much lower, with this rules package, I thought there was something wrong with the engine. I didn’t think it was running correctly. Then I saw my name on the pylon when I came around off of turn four. Well, much better than I thought sitting there in fifth (laughter).”

Pastrana, 39, who will drive the No. 67 23XI Racing Toyota, earned one of his four career top-10 NASCAR finishes at the Daytona International Speedway – a 10th place effort in the 2013 NASCAR Xfinity Series race on the high banks. As with Conor Daly, he wished that there was an opportunity to practice, but he also put time in on the simulators and does have the benefit of competing the full 2013 season in the Xfinity Series.

Pastrana, an X Games gold medalist and champion in a number of disciplines from supercross to rally racing, is entered in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race on Friday as well planning to run in his first DAYTONA 500 on Sunday.

“Every single driver has gone so far out of the way,” Pastrana said of the reaction to his Daytona participation. “Even when they say, ‘It’s the Good Ole Boy Club,’ no, it’s the opposite of that where these guys are truly excited to have someone new and assuming that I will do my job. Everyone is equally as excited to help me because they don’t want me to cause the big one. And I appreciate that.”

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