It was one of the most dramatic and endearing moments in NASCAR history: Seconds after taking the checkered flag in the 2011 Daytona 500, Trevor Bayne keyed the mic on his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford and said, “Are you kidding me?” Moments later, Bayne’s crew hoisted him out of the car as he pointed upwards to the sky.
Bayne’s victory was a stunning upset: The Wood Brothers, one of NASCAR’s founding families, hadn’t won a race since 2001 and had throttled back to a part-time schedule. Bayne, an unheralded rookie making only his second career Sprint Cup start, had just turned 20 years old the day before.
And yet, somehow, someway, Bayne and the Wood Brothers had just captured the biggest race in NASCAR. With his victory, Bayne became the fifth driver to win the Daytona 500 for the Wood Brothers, joining Tiny Lund, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt and David Pearson, an elite group, to be sure.
It was a victory for the ages, the youngest driver in the Sprint Cup Series and the oldest team. The wide-eyed enthusiasm of youth and the proud moment of triumph for a team that had struggled mightily in recent years.
One week later, in the garage at Phoenix International, Len Wood’s phone rang.
It was Pearson, the NASCAR Hall of Fame member who won 43 of his 105 career Cup victories in a Wood Brothers car, calling from his home in South Carolina to check on Bayne, to make sure the youngster was still right with the world, that the victory hadn’t gone to his head.
“Put the boy on,” Pearson told Len Wood firmly. “I want to make sure his head is still screwed on straight.”
That’s how big the victory was.
If a part-time team with a young gun behind the wheel could defeat the Goliaths of the sport in the biggest race of the season, it seemed like anything was possible, that Bayne’s future had limitless potential. And Bayne, a devout Christian who celebrated his victory by shooting hoops and going skateboarding in the Daytona infield, should have been a sponsor’s dream.
Certainly, the Wood Brothers were high on the youngster.
Less than a month before the 2011 Daytona 500, I walked up to Eddie Wood, said hello and asked him, “You really think this kid can win a race this year, don’t you?”
Wood never even flinched.
“Yes, sir. Absolutely,” said Wood. “His maturity level, as far as his awareness inside a race car is … you’d think he’d had 20 or 30 years’ experience. Just listening to him, his calmness … all the things it takes win races, he’s got it.
“Realistically, I think we could have some really good runs this year. You get in the right spot, do the right things — you’ve got to do everything right to win a race. Everyone knows these are really hard to win. But if we can get to the end and have a shot, I think he’ll hold his own.”
Unfortunately, the promise that seemed so unlimited after the 500 didn’t take into account Bayne’s health, because frankly no one thinks of a 20-year-old athlete getting sick enough to force him to the sidelines.
What the future holds remains to be seen. In 45 career NASCAR Sprint Cup starts, Bayne has just three top-10 finishes, one of those being his Daytona victory.
On the NASCAR Nationwide Series side, Bayne is currently sixth in points, driving for Roush Fenway Racing. In 117 career Nationwide starts, he has two race victories, 18 top fives and 50 top 10s.
And Bayne has vowed to keep racing.
“As for now, I want to close out the season strong this weekend at Homestead and then shift my focus on getting ready to compete for the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship in 2014,” he said in a statement released by Roush Fenway Racing Tuesday. “I have a great team, a great family and great people all around me. I have been truly blessed in life and I look forward to what my future holds.”