By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A processing of the unknown was the theme on Wednesday for Daytona 500 Media Day.
In what feels like a generation ago, reaching this point of the week at Daytona International Speedway would have marked the halfway point of Speedweeks instead of the opening salvo of what is increasingly Speedweekend.
The very first lap anyone will turn this week will come on Wednesday night when Chandler Smith is released for his Daytona 500 qualifying attempt. That will also be his first lap ever in a Cup Series car. That’s because there is no practice until Friday after the qualifying races. The Busch Clash has since moved to a temporary short track at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
To get familiar with the Cup car, to even learn how to get through the gears, Smith drove circles around the Kaulig Racing parking lot over the weekend. That’s the closest thing even a rookie driver gets to practice before qualifying for the biggest race of the year.
“If we lived in a perfect world, we’d have practice before qualifying because who’s to say right off the bat we had a problem with the clutch or anything,” Smith said. “If we had practice, we’d be able to identify a problem and fix it before qualifying. It’s been like this for years, so it’s not going to change and that’s fine.”
It’s not just the youngest driver in the field, and a completely fresh rookie that is caught off guard by the unknown, but a seven-time champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner in Jimmie Johnson as well. Johnson spent the past two years driving in IMSA and IndyCar and is completely new to the Next Gen racing platform.
Unlike Smith at least, Johnson did complete a test at Phoenix Raceway last month, so at least he’s capable of getting through the gears without worry. But there is still a lot of new about what he’s about to do without any practice.
“Driving it at Phoenix, there is a much different experience driving the car in the way you create speed, the way the car rides at the bump stops, the ride quality of the vehicle,” Johnson said. “The sim session that I had getting ready for here – although it’s silly to do a sim for Daytona running by yourself – I did notice that the content in the track due to how the cars ride on bump stops is really rough.
“That was not the case my last time here.”
He’s actually still worried a little bit about getting through the gears.
“Mentally, I’m going to be ready for that getting-up-to-speed lap, how close I get to the wall, how much the car will be on the stops bouncing around and what that might be like,” Johnson said. “I’ve been advised many times to remember that it’s a sequential box and that I keep pulling gears, and third gear is actually back here – 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. The last thing I have to be aware of and remember is that there are five gears and not four. In the simulator, I made that mistake and ran around in fourth gear for one of my qualifying laps.”
That would be … not ideal.
Action sports star Travis Pastrana was another big story for the week as he is making his return to NASCAR for the first time since his full-time Xfinity Series campaign for Roush Racing in 2013.
It’s a similar experience as Smith as those two laps will be his first in a Cup car of any kind, much less the Next Gen.
“I think for everyone not having practice, these are the best drivers in the world and even for me, I’ll find out in that first turn exactly what the balance is like,” Pastrana said. “But it sure would be nice to have more than one turn to figure it out and unfortunately we’re not going to have that luxury.”
Pastrana is excited to race alongside some of his best friends this weekend. He’s entered in both the Daytona 500, a race he will have to qualify his way into, and the Truck Series race with Niece Motorsports.
His crew chief for the Truck race will be Cody Efaw, his car chief from his Roush stint, while racing alongside good friend Matt Crafton, who have raced dirt modifieds together over the past week at Volusia Raceway Park.
Pastrana has raced with Chase Elliott and Austin Cindric in Nitro Rallycross the past two years and have friendships there. IndyCar veteran Conor Daly is also attempting to make his Daytona 500 debut and is one of Pastrana’s best friends.
“I finally got the green light and I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m going to do it,'” Pastrana said. “He was like, ‘That’s so cool.’ And then he called me just a couple weeks ago and he’s like, ‘I’m in too!’
“I wanted to punch him through the phone, like, ‘Doggone it, what are you doing?’ He’s a good friend. … Someone asked me what would you be willing to give up to win the Daytona 500. I said, ‘All my friends that are racing on that track.'”
To his point, Pastrana and Daly may be in a position to eliminate each other fro the Daytona 500 field.
NASCAR rules automatically permit the 36 cars with charters into the race with four open spots to non-chartered teams. The drivers without charter protection are Johnson, Pastrana, Daly, Smith, Austin Hill and Zane Smith.
Daly is driving The Money Team No. 50, a team partially funded by Floyd Mayweather, but it’s still an upstart organization and one with long odds to make the race.
“Everyone said the same thing: ‘It’s going to be hard, but why not try?'” Daly said.
Then there’s the veterans, who while still equipped to tackle this weekend with minimal concern, still feel like something is missing this weekend. Enter 2012 Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski.
“Oh, it definitely surprised me,” Keselowski said of the schedule. “But you know, the sport’s always changing. I’ve gotten to a point where I try not to be surprised, but that one got me.”
Will it even matter?
“I’d like to have hindsight to answer that question,” Keselowski said. “Can I have until Sunday night to answer that one? I’ll be a lot smarter then.”
Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman says the simulator is pretty precise, even if not perfect, and he isn’t sure the lack of practice will matter.
“I think it’ll be fine,” Bowman said. “It’s obviously stressful. I came down here not locked in once, or twice, but it’s the same for everybody. Just gotta go do your job.”
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