In this day and age of NASCAR, when each well-known rookie is given so much hype they’re a blockbuster before ever setting foot on the track it’s near-impossible for someone to overachieve. Rarely, now does someone come along that raises your eyebrows with so much predetermined by money, equipment, and previous experience.
But ever so quietly, as NASCAR gears up for the Chase this weekend there’s a story that could need chasing in the Nationwide Series. X Games rally champion Travis Pastrana, armed with a rabid fan base that really could have cared less about cars turning left until recently is starting to earn the right for announcers to say his name. Driving the No. 60 for Roush Fenway Racing this weekend, Pastrana is stepping into equipment that’s capable of winning, finally heading to a track he’ll be visiting in this division for a second time. If there’s ever a time to turn heads, in the midst of working on a much larger slate of races for 2013 this weekend would be it.
Can Pastrana win on Friday night? Probably not; even a career-best performance would pale in comparison to the Cup regulars that typically run roughshod over this field. But what’s beginning to become readily apparent, unlike the female version of this heavily-hyped superstar (Hint: she drives a green car) is that Pastrana looks like he’s capable of winning one someday. Considering that just six months ago, we weren’t sure if the recovering superstar was even going to _drive in NASCAR,_ ever that’s a momentous achievement, one worth pausing on at a time when the sport desperately needs to inject some new personalities.
How quickly has Pastrana come around? Friday night, driving the RAB Racing Toyota (about a top-10 car at best equipment-wise) he led the first six laps of his Nationwide career. In comparison, Ms. Patrick led a _total_ of four laps during her entire first season running that division. At one point, until losing it and wrecking late in the event a top-10 finish seemed like a certainty for Pastrana, at a racetrack that isn’t always rookie friendly. Even with that disappointing result, his average finish of 22.0 runs circles around Patrick’s 31.0 during that initial, eight-race stretch that catapults the stock car transition. Keep in mind Patrick received better equipment in 2010, had a consistent driver/coach with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and a proven crew chief in her camp with Tony Eury, Jr.
Pastrana, meanwhile, has done these things with a lower tier of support in each of those categories, nursing a broken ankle and wheeling it for a single-car team. Still not impressed? Consider Sam Hornish, Jr., a current Nationwide title contender had a 31.6 average finish in his first eight races running the series. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. checks in at 24.6, almost three full positions lower than Pastrana and with two more DNFs. Juan Pablo Montoya, with a 21.6 number is slightly better, but only because of a road course win at Mexico City (playing right into the IndyCar drivers’ strength).
You get the picture. While some are surprised Pastrana landed the ride with RFR, it’s well deserved. With the right opportunity, it’s becoming increasingly clear there’s potential for him to make some serious noise. So why is all the focus, when you compare Nationwide’s big stars seemingly tilted in Danica’s direction? With zero races won this year (compared to one sneaker destroyed) she’s still getting a disproportionate amount of coverage — especially for someone who’s only going to be a full-time participant in that division for three more months. The two are the most recognizable names for casual and non-NASCAR fans, for different reasons but the advantage on the media side and TV time still tilts decidedly Danica’s way. And if Pastrana can’t break through the bubble … can you imagine how the other drivers in this series feel?
It’s a shame as Pastrana, with Stenhouse and possibly Hornish departing the series represents the next fresh face that could come in and instantly connect with the fan base full-time. His attitude and personality, unique in NASCAR circles is warmly welcomed in this age of political correctness. And the connection to males 18-34 is unmistakable, the lifeline stock car racing is either still trying to attract or simply hold on to, depending on how unhealthy you think the 2012 version is.
Many drivers have explained the difficulty of going from open wheel to NASCAR. But rally racing to stock car ovals is no easy task either. So take a look at Travis Pastrana tonight… for once, the hype may be 100% deserving of your attention.
And you don’t even have to watch a GoDaddy commercial to see it.