2023 Daytona 500: What to Watch for at NASCAR’s Big Race This Weekend

The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season kicks off on Sunday. As always, there’s plenty to pay attention to.

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2023 Daytona 500: What to Watch for at NASCAR’s Big Race This Weekend © 2023 Daytona 500: What to Watch for at NASCAR’s Big Race This Weekend

The only reason you really need to watch the Daytona 500 every year is that it's the Daytona 500. Big money is dished out to big names competing on NASCAR's biggest stage, and sure, there's always "The Big One" if you're into crashes. But this weekend's running has more going for it than glittering generalities.

Some are obvious, others are less so, but there are always storylines humming in the background of the Great American Race. Let's run through those you should pay attention to come Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Travis Pastrana Makes the Field and Will Start Dead Last

It's not rallycross or motocross, but Travis Pastrana is the 2023 Daytona 500's biggest crossover star. He'll be driving the No. 67 Toyota Camry for 23XI Racing when the green flag flies after piloting a Cup car for the first time on Wednesday. He made it on the grid by the skin of his teeth, but he'll line up on the back row in 40th alongside Ty Dillon.

“I am so very fortunate to be here,” Pastrana told NBC Sports Thursday night. “This is something that’s not about the money. It’s not about anything. It’s just about trying to be a part of the Great American Race and to have an opportunity to qualify with such a great team and to be brought on with so many people around me that are helping me to do the best that I absolutely possibly can. At the end of the day, we’re in it to do the best that we can. Damage or no damage, my goal is to obviously not be the cause of any of it and try to do the best we can. But hey, I’m going for it. So we’ll see what happens.”

NASCAR photo

Pastrana ran a full-time Xfinity Series campaign in 2013 and he's popped up in NASCAR's Truck Series over the years, so he's no stranger to stock cars. His Black Rifle Coffee-backed Camry was the second-fastest Open car in qualifying, so he seems to have a capable machine. Like the rest of the field, Pastrana's success will be determined by how well he navigates through traffic, at speed, on the banking, with an awesome pit strategy to boot. Simple enough.

47-Year-Old Jimmie Johnson Returns As Owner-Driver

You might remember that Jimmie Johnson retired from full-time NASCAR competition in 2020. In the years since he's been racing in IndyCar with decent success. This weekend, though, the seven-time Cup champion will tackle Daytona as co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, formerly known as Petty GMS. As he told Racer, that presents its own batch of challenges:

“I show up and walk in the garage, the trucks are parked, the drivers are in fire suits, and there was this moment of this panic hitting me again like, (expletive) I missed something. Wait, I didn’t miss anything. So, I make some rounds, say hellos, see everybody, and I’m trying to figure out, do I walk into the truck and see drivers?"

NASCAR photo

Johnson added that he's enjoying the front office more than expected, and while it's consuming in its own right, he still feels like driving requires the bulk of his attention.

“There are many more facets in this ownership role and a lot of other people; you put a lot of trust in a lot of other areas," he explained to Racer. "It’s just a different experience that has plenty of pressure, but so far, it’s not equal to the pressure of being the guy holding the wheel. That’s a very intense pressure.”

NASCAR photo

Seeing How the Next Gen Car Crashes

There's been more than a little talk surrounding NASCAR's Next Gen race car and how it crashes. Even before its competition debut, there were rumors that it had "killed" a crash test dummy during development. NASCAR promptly disproved that by releasing footage of the staged incident, though it became clear that there was more work to do from a safety perspective.

Skip forward to the 2022 Cup Series season and Kurt Busch experienced nine crashes measuring 15 Gs or more. The last one that knocked him out of the competition was at Pocono Raceway in July, where a rear impact dealt him a blow of more than 30 Gs before the front came around and he suffered a second hit of of 18 Gs. Busch still hasn't been cleared to race and he has retired from full-time Cup Series action.

"That one just was so different and beyond the other eight hits that I had last year," Busch told Fox Sports.

NASCAR photo

Because of that wreck and another that concussed this weekend's pole-sitter Alex Bowman last September, NASCAR put its head down. Drivers acknowledge that while it's impossible to know just how significant these improvements are until they run this weekend, they've seen the sanctioning body putting in real work.

Because of that wreck and another that concussed this weekend's pole-sitter Alex Bowman last September, NASCAR put its head down. Drivers acknowledge that while it's impossible to know just how significant these improvements are until they run this weekend, they've seen the sanctioning body putting in real work.

"NASCAR has definitely made the right moves with everything they've done with the cars," driver-owner Brad Keselowski said. "To what order of magnitude we'll see an improvement is really unclear.

"But without a doubt, they're not standing still."

Bob Pockrass' write-up of the situation is worth a read if you want to know more.

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