Thursday, February 16, 2023

CUP: Travis Pastrana’s last-place finish a footnote to Conor Daly’s improbable comeback in Duel Race 2

PHOTO: Jared C. Tilton, Getty Images

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Travis Pastrana finished last in Thursday’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel Race 2 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #67 Black Rifle Coffee Toyota was involved in a multi-car accident after 40 of 60 laps.

One of the most surprising entries for this year’s 500 was that of extreme sports legend Pastrana, who to much fanfare drove a neon-hued #60 Ford for Roush-Fenway Racing in a lone NASCAR XFINITY Series campaign back in 2013. He earned a pole at Talladega and four top-ten finishes, securing 14th in the final standings. Since then, he’s only made five other starts in NASCAR’s top three series – all of them in the Truck Series, and none since 2020. 

But that didn’t stop the announcement that 23XI Racing would enter a third car for the first time. After fielding the #23 and #45 as team co-owner Michael Jordan’s most famous jersey numbers, the team selected #67, a number that hadn’t started the Daytona 500 since 1989 with Mickey Gibbs. The number was most famously driven by Mopar loyalist Buddy Arrington, who died just last year. Pastrana’s incarnation of the #67 would be far different than Arrington’s red-and-blue Mopars. He’d run a plaid paint scheme, emblematic of his own branding.

In qualifying – Pastrana’s first-ever laps behind the wheel of a NASCAR NextGen car – he put up a best lap of 179.254mph (50.208 seconds), ranking him 25th of the 42 entrants. Most importantly, it ranked him second among the six “open” teams – just two spots below class leader Jimmie Johnson – securing him a starting spot in “The Great American Race.” He celebrated on pit road with the family of close friend Ken Block, who lost his life in a snowmobile accident in January.

Pastrana would line up 12th in Duel Race 2, where Conor Daly would roll off last in The Money Team Racing’s #50 Bitnile Chevrolet. Daly’s mount had suffered even worse electrical issues than Chandler Smith from Race 1. A short caused a failure in a custom-made oil line, and a replacement couldn’t be found either on the track premises nor in any local sports car shops. While the crew did manage to repair the line later that night, Daly was the only driver to not turn a lap in qualifying, and wouldn’t get to shake down his car until the Duel race itself.

This, too, proved problematic. No sooner had Daly’s #50 rolled off the grid than it started shaking violently from front to back, making the driver feel like he was jumping in his seat. The bouncing grew worse as the car accelerated, making him think something was bent in the rear of the car. Despite it feeling “like driving over a supercross track,” making him think the driveline was failing, Daly took the green flag on the track. The car’s rocking motion was immediately apparent, and he lost touch with the field immediately. “It’s fighting so hard when I get in the corner,” he said, “I feel like the rear is snapping out on me aggressively.”

After a caution-free Duel Race 1, Daly was saved by an early yellow on Lap 5, caused by the passenger-side window coming free from Justin Haley’s #31 Cirkul Chevrolet. This allowed Daly to follow the rest of the field down pit road, where the crew first took off both right-side wheels, then the left-front to make further adjustments. On Lap 9, Daly put the car in gear and returned to the track, still on the lead lap in last place. “Feel better, Connor?” the team asked. “Yes, much better. Much better.” The next time by, Daly had even passed another car. B.J. McLeod in the #78 Power Slap Rumble Chevrolet had stalled on pit road, costing him nearly a lap to the leaders. As Daly filed in at the tail end of the pack for the restart, McLeod was by himself a half-lap behind, trying to catch up. On Lap 12, McLeod could gain no more ground, and fell 23.726 seconds back of the leader. Daly managed to battle Chase Briscoe’s #14 Mahindra Tractors Ford for 19th until he was shaken out on Lap 14, causing Daly to gradually fall toward the distant McLeod.

During this run, McLeod’s spotter was impressed with how their car was performing. “Buddy, by yourself, this is actually a pretty good time,” he said on Lap 16. And even when the leaders caught and lapped the #78 on the 20th circuit, he was impressed with how well the car sucked up on the draft. Daly, meanwhile, continued to lose ground, showing 39.348 seconds back of the leader on Lap 27. By Lap 29, the leaders had caught and passed Daly off Turn 2, the #50 dropping back in the high lane. “Just go ahead and go by him,” said McLeod’s spotter. “He’s really off the pace.” On Lap 31, McLeod had caught Daly and looked to his outside, ultimately dropping Daly to last by Lap 34. Daly was himself sounding positive on the radio, saying on Lap 35 that the car handled better as it burned off more fuel.

Pastrana, meanwhile, had lagged back in the pack as he tried to learn for Sunday’s race. Even so, he was still among the leaders when trouble broke out on Lap 41. Halfway down the backstretch, Daniel Suarez had locked the front bumper of his #99 Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge Chevrolet to the rear bumper of Kyle Busch’s #8 3CHI Chevrolet. Busch had paced the field for most of the race, and was as hardly contested as Joey Logano had been in Race 1. But one bump too many from Suarez sent Busch’s car hard to the right entering Turn 3, slamming the #8 head-on into the wall. As traffic scattered, Pastrana was running in the low lane behind Austin Hill, whose #62 Bennett Chevrolet was the other “open” car Daly needed to beat in order to make the 500 field. Pastrana appeared to get into the back of Hill, sending the #62 up the track and into the passing #15 SunnyD Chevrolet of Riley Herbst. Pastrana skated into the pileup, then down the banking and into the grass. 

Busch and Herbst didn’t make it to pit road, and while the NASCAR leaderboard indicated Pastrana did, joining Hill, Pastrana was credited with the last-place finish. Hill attempted to return to the race, but completed just one more lap before suspension damage from the wreck sent him behind the wall, both out of the race and the 500. With that, Daly – still one lap down after his early misfortune – became the last driver to lock himself into the 500 field. Daly finished the race under power, completing the Bottom Five, but secured the open-wheeler his first 500 and the second in a row for The Money Team Racing.

Daly will start 34th in Sunday’s 500 with Pastrana taking 40th and last on the grid.

*This was the first last-place finish for the #67 in the Duel races.

21) #67-Travis Pastrana / 40 laps / crash
20) #15-Riley Herbst / 40 laps / crash
19) #8-Kyle Busch / 40 laps / crash / led 28 laps
18) #62-Austin Hill / 41 laps / dvp
17) #50-Conor Daly / 59 laps / running

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