On a fast and dangerous double-up day of drafting at Daytona International Speedway, rookie Trevor Bayne held off a horde of challengers in the closing moments and won Sunday’s Daytona 500, one of the strangest events in the race’s 53-year history.
Bayne, who turned 20 on Saturday, had the lead starting the second green-white-checkered session and stayed in front of a host of wannabees on the last two laps to become the youngest winner in 500 history.
He also returned the Wood Brothers’ iconic No. 21 car — painted to resemble the 21 that carried David Pearson to victory in the 500 35 years ago — to a NASCAR victory lane for the first time since 2001.
The race was only Bayne’s second Sprint Cup event.
"I keep thinking I’m dreaming," Bayne said. "We prayed before the race. We do that a lot. This just shows how powerful God is. To win our first 500 in our second-ever Cup race. And how cool is it to see the Wood brothers back in victory lane. To win on this kind of platform is incredible."
The race finish was set up with 18 laps to go when Kasey Kahne blew a tire and slammed the wall in Turn three, bringing out the day’s 14th caution. That bunched the field for a sprint to the finish.
But there was much more action to come.
A crash on the backstretch with four laps to go damaged several of the lead-pack cars, caused another caution and rebunched the field for "overtime."
On the first green-white-checkered attempt, race leader David Ragan was blackflagged by NASCAR for dropping from the outside lane to the inside lane to move in front of drafting partner Bayne before they reached the start-finish line. That cost Ragan a shot at the victory.
A few seconds later, a major accident developed on the backstretch among the leaders, halting the first green-white-checkered run. AJ Allmendinger hit Ryan Newman, sparking a multi-car crash and setting up the second green-white-checkered attempt.
Bayne led that one all the way, then stayed low on the track through the trioval for the final time to hold off the drafting pair of Carl Edwards and David Gilliland.
The day was less about racing and more about caution periods, two-car drafting, protecting engines and fuel-only, super-fast pit stops. Tires lasted so long on Daytona’s new surface that most of pit road’s tire changers could have stayed at home.
The first 50 laps of the race were riddled by five cautions as contact in the new Daytona draft proved problematic. Unfortunately, those early cautions were predictors of things to come. The race ended with 16 caution periods, easily a Daytona 500 record, and 74 lead changes, also a record.
The Big One, as huge Daytona/Talladega wrecks are known, occurred early, collecting 17 cars in the Turn 4 vicinity. The accident began in the middle of the pack as Michael Waltrip, who had been drafting with his teammate/employee David Reutimann, tapped Reutimann in the rear and sent him spinning.
Cars scattered around trying to avoid the melee, but that mostly didn’t work. Cars involved to one degree or another in the crash included those of Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth.
When the smoke cleared, the pool of drivers still eligible to win the season’s biggest race had been trimmed considerably. And it resulted in some unusual names — Terry Labonte, Dave Blaney, Paul Menard, Robby Gordon, Regan Smith — leading laps.
Seven laps before the big crash, former 500 winner Kevin Harvick parked his Chevrolet with engine trouble, becoming the first key driver to leave the competition.
Near the race’s halfway point, Harvick’s teammate, Jeff Burton, went to the garage with a sour engine, providing more illustration of the punishment even the best motors absorbed Sunday.
The race’s first caution flew on lap five in heavy traffic as Waltrip hit the rear of Kyle Busch’s car, pushing Busch into a looping ride. Busch didn’t blame Waltrip, saying he had to slow down because of three-wide traffic in front of him.
Caution after caution after caution followed, and several were caused by drafting partners misjudging the speed and, or movements of the other driver in the pair.