April 29, 2012
By Nicholas Schwartz
Win or lose, ex-dirtbike racer turned NASCAR rookie Travis Pastrana is known for making a statement.
He’s as revered for his remarkable victories as he is for his spectacular crashes on two wheels. In a completely new arena, though, Pastrana took it easy in his Nationwide Series debut, and if not for a late-race pit-road penalty, the Nationwide Series’ most talked about newcomer could have notched a top-20 finish under the lights at Richmond International Raceway.
Pastrana’s first Nationwide start has been a long time coming: he was originally scheduled to debut at Lucas Oil Speedway last year but hurt himself the prior weekend in what would prove to be his final performance at the X Games -- the competition where Pastrana gained so much of his fame. While attempting to execute a 720-degree spin over a jump at the 2011 X Games, Pastrana crashed, landing on his side and breaking his left foot and ankle. The ensuing rehabilitation meant that Pastrana would have to cancel his NASCAR plans for 2011, an outcome that was heartbreaking for him.
“[I] really was looking forward to getting that first start at Indianapolis (Lucas Oil Raceway) and hurt myself…. Since that race, it’s all I’ve been thinking about is just getting in here and starting the Nationwide and seeing what’s going on,” Pastrana said.
Conventional wisdom suggested Pastrana would try to be conservative and survive to see the checkered flag in his first Nationwide Series start -- especially after he had an accident in the K&N Pro Series East event dropped him to a disappointing finishing position -- Pastrana rarely stepped a toe out of line at Richmond. He benefitted immensely from well-timed cautions -- first on the 24th lap for debris in Turn 4, then again on cautions courtesy of J.J. Yeley and Jason Bowles, respectively -- just as then -- race leader Kevin Harvick was about to put Pastrana a lap down.
He wasn’t the most impressive debutant at Richmond, that honor belongs to Ryan Blaney, who ran near the top-10 all night long and finished seventh, but Pastrana dealt with the remarkable media attention devoted to him all week and didn’t crumble under pressure -- though he admitted prior to the start of the race that he was nervous. Pastrana navigated past lapped cars flawlessly, and managed to hold his position throughout long green-flag stretches.
When Pastrana was finally forced to drive aggressively in the waning laps as Kurt Busch streaked through the field lapping car after car, Pastrana held his composure and managed to move up through the field, eventually succumbing to Busch’s superior car after a short battle.
Still nursing a top-20 finish, Pastrana then committed his only rookie mistake of the evening. He noted pre-race that his worst nightmare was a green-flag pit stop -- something Pastrana had never executed before -- and when he steered the No. 99 car onto pit lane with 45 laps left, it seemed that Pastrana had nailed it. He was unable to slow down his car enough before exiting the final speed trap, however, and was forced to serve a pass-through penalty, relegating him to 26th place, three laps down.
Once the pit cycle was complete, Pastrana would remain two laps down, and cruised to a 22nd-place finish. It wasn’t the flashy result expected of him by a fervent fan base, but Pastrana logged valuable miles behind the wheel, avoided trouble on the race track and turned in a spotless race car to his team -- a good result for a rookie, by any measure.
“He did a really great job, I was really impressed,” said Danica Patrick, who finished one position ahead of Pastrana, in 21st.
Though Patrick ended up ahead of Pastrana on the night, she took a backseat in the media for perhaps the first time in her NASCAR career in advance of the race. The arrival of Pastrana has injected a new surge of energy into the Nationwide Series, and if Travis can be as impressive in two weeks at Darlington Raceway, his dream of racing in the Sprint Cup Series may not be as far-fetched as it once seemed.
If you would like to learn more about Nicholas, please check out his web site at Sports By Schwartz. Nicholas is a Managing editor and sportswriter for The Duke Chronicle at Duke University.
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.