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Fire on Fridays: Jimmie Johnson, Travis Pastrana Are Big, Let’s Get the Daytona 500 Even Bigger

Two of the biggest names in this year’s Daytona 500 are seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and 11-time X Games gold medalist Travis Pastrana.

But both superstars needed to outperform the other open cars to get into the show, and they did just that in Wednesday night’s (Feb. 15) qualifying for the Great American Race.

Johnson’s Legacy Motor Club car and Pastrana’s 23XI Racing entry were the two fastest among the open cars, locking their way into the Daytona 500 regardless of what happened in Thursday night’s (Feb. 16) Duel races.

“This. This is a dream come true,” Pastrana said.

He and Johnson shared an embrace after they both made the field. And while both drivers let out sighs of relief after making the field, the brass at NASCAR probably did the same.

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Jimmie Johnson & Travis Pastrana Bond Over Daytona 500 Berth

Because had either Johnson or Pastrana missed the show, this year’s Daytona 500 would have lost quite a bit of star power. Tracking social media followers isn’t the best way to gauge the appeal a driver brings, but Johnson has 2.5 million Twitter followers, and Pastrana boasts 4.6 million on Instagram.

For reference, the front row for the Daytona 500, Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson, doesn’t have that many social media followers combined across Twitter and Instagram, and those are two of the biggest stars in NASCAR today.

While Johnson attracts a lot of eyeballs within the motorsports spectrum, Pastrana helps bring in an audience that usually doesn’t watch NASCAR. Him being in the race is almost equivalent to if Evel Knievel had secured a Daytona 500 ride in the early 1970s.

Pastrana realistically isn’t going to compete for the Daytona 500 win, even though his 23XI teammates Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick will be major factors. But Johnson has as good of a shot at winning as anyone. After all, he has already won two Daytona 500s.

Should Johnson win the Daytona 500, he would continue a tradition among NASCAR and its seven-time champions. In 1973, NASCAR’s 25th anniversary season, Richard Petty won the Daytona 500, one of seven for the King. In 1998, NASCAR’s golden anniversary, Dale Earnhardt finally broke through for his first Daytona 500 win. This season is NASCAR’s 75th anniversary, and Johnson is the only seven-time champion in the field.

Having Johnson and Pastrana in the field helps reinforce the Great American Race as one of the biggest in the world after it arguably lost some of its luster in recent years. And it definitely made qualifying and Duels become important again, when it had recently been a battle among backmarker teams to make the field.

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But NASCAR must never settle or be satisfied. Getting Johnson and Pastrana are great, but now it’s time to lure even even bigger stars for next year’s Daytona 500.

Helio Castroneves, the only active four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, wanted to be in this year’s Daytona 500. He was promised a ride in it by SRX CEO Don Hawk after Castroneves won this past year’s Camping World SRX Series season opener at Five Flags Speedway.

Hawk ultimately failed to deliver on his promise, but it needs to be a priority for NASCAR to get Castroneves in the field for the race next year.

NASCAR should get involved in trying to attract stars to its races because it’s in everyone’s best interest to get as much attention on the series as possible. Former track president and general manager Humpy Wheeler did wonders for the Coca-Cola 600 by helping set up rides for the likes of Earnhardt, Willy T. Ribbs and Janet Guthrie.

And the buck shouldn’t stop with Castroneves. NASCAR needs to aim for bigger and bigger stars for its biggest race.

It can’t just throw any famous person in a racecar, of course. I don’t want to see Rob Lowe end up with a 2024 Daytona 500 ride; it has to be someone with racing experience. But should he perform well in the ARCA Menards Series this year, then why not stick Frankie Muniz in the field for next year’s Daytona 500?

I’m not too familiar with what other famous actors race on the side, but if there are any that come close to the talent Paul Newman had, go for them. We’ve seen stuntmen in NASCAR. What about a major actor who does their own stunts like Tom Cruise (Cole Trickle!) or Keanu Reeves? OK, those will never happen, but a man can dream, right?

Some more achievable goals though would be for NASCAR to aim at some drivers who are famous worldwide: top Formula 1 drivers. Kimi Raikkonen made a huge splash in the Cup Series last year when he raced at Watkins Glen International. He seemed interested in coming back. Why not return for the biggest Cup race?

Speaking of seven-time champions, Lewis Hamilton expressed interest in doing the Daytona 500 back in 2017. That would be the absolute biggest star NASCAR could get that is actually realistic. Why has that not happened yet?

Reigning F1 champion Max Verstappen might be even more realistic than Hamilton. His girlfriend Kelly Piquet is sisters with Julia Piquet, Trackhouse Racing driver Daniel Suarez‘s fiance. Trackhouse has PROJECT91, designed to get international drivers in the Cup field like it did with Raikkonen last year — although Verstappen’s F1 team Red Bull Racing now being aligned with Ford might complicate that, as Trackhouse is a Chevrolet team.

When AJ Foyt came to NASCAR, it helped add validity to what was essentially a regional sport at the time. Getting Hamilton or Verstappen could help legitimize NASCAR worldwide.

Regardless, NASCAR has a lot of positive momentum with this year’s Daytona 500, and it must do everything in its power to build off of that to attract even bigger stars, and with that a bigger audience, for next year and years to come.

About the author

Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.

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Be careful what you wish for. Around 86 or 87, Tom Cruise tried his hand at racing, and was a complete failure. While filming The Color of Money, he went to a few races with Newman, and decided to give it a try. Newman put a deal together for Cruise to drive a Datsun Z in the SCCA Showroom Stock class. I don’t believe the deal lasted the whole season, Cruise was terrible. He was so bad that Datsun wouldn’t provide publicity photos to track promoters for race programs, and many in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) suggested changing the organizations name to “See Cruise Crash Again”!

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