Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, one day after turning 20, Trevor Bayne became the youngest driver to win the Daytona 500.
For Bayne, it was the culmination of a rather whirlwind introduction to NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.
When team owner Jack Roush signed Bayne to drive a NASCAR Nationwide Series car last fall, he began shepherding the youngster in the direction of fellow team owner Eddie Wood.
Initially, Wood was uncertain of his new driver and hesitant to take chances in qualifying. While rebuilding its program, Wood Brothers Racing had relied on Bill Elliott (and his former champions exemption) for a guaranteed starting position in the limited schedule the team opted to run. Missing races could mean the death of one of NASCAR’s most enduring teams.
“You will love this kid,” I promised my friend Eddie at the time.
Bayne just bubbles. His positive attitude and magnetic personality made him a pied piper in the Nationwide Series. Young drivers — although fierce competitors on the track — were drawn to Bayne from the moment he arrived. He’s polite, attractive and extremely talented.
Bayne came to the shop before his debut with the Wood Brothers at Texas Motor Speedway in November. Wood, who had experienced his share of young drivers, asked the then-19-year-old if he was up to the challenge. Bayne didn’t hesitate and convinced Wood he was ready to go.
The Texas race — a qualifier for NASCAR to approve Bayne to race in the Daytona 500 — resulted in a solid run for a rookie. He started the car 28th and finished 17th. He kept his nose clean throughout the race and worked diligently with crew chief Donnie Wingo and engineer Chris Andrews, who is now Bayne’s crew chief in the Nationwide Series.
“I knew then he was magic,” Wood said of Bayne. “Had he not been blocked on pit road by Regan Smith, I’m sure he could have finished in the top 10. We had a fast car.”
At a pre-Daytona dinner last Tuesday, Bayne asked permission to say grace. In typical Trevor fashion, he "yes ma’amed" me to death. Despite being NASCAR’s newest heartthrob, he talked about not having a date for Valentine’s Day.
He spoke of God allowing him to race as “a platform” for philanthropy and spreading the word. He was hoping to start recreation centers for underprivileged children.
Bayne, who left his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., at age 15 to move to Charlotte so he would be closer to racing, said the only time he had been out of the country was to work on a mission trip in Mexico.
We joked that he would need a suit if he won the Daytona 500 because of media obligations — and he still asked why. Now, he’s about to find out.
Throughout the week, Bayne was in awe of his good fortune. He got to draft with Kyle Busch after his own Ford/Roush Fenway teammates would not initially practice with him. Then Bayne worked with his boyhood hero, Jeff Gordon, in the Gatorade Duels on Thursday until the final lap, when the No. 24 became loose and collected both cars.
Under the direction of veteran crew chief Wingo, the crew worked late Thursday night to repair Bayne’s car. Wingo told me by phone the damage was cosmetic and the car would be OK. The team completely replaced the left side on Friday, so Bayne sat out practice that day, hanging out in the transporter while the team continued working on the car.
He was still in disbelief of everything evolving around him and how the stars of the sport gravitated to him on the racetrack despite the yellow stripe signifying him as a novice on the rear bumper.
“It’s just happened so fast,” Bayne said. “That it wasn’t a transition of gradually working with these guys. We came in with a top-notch team — and we came in to be fast. I didn’t start at a low-budget type of deal where I had to work my way up. I was really lucky with this — I guess because of my Nationwide performance. But in one day it was, ‘Wow, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch,’ and the next day I’m out on the track and I’m racing against them. It’s part of the game.
“When Jeff Gordon asked if I would work with him in the Duels, I thought, ’It’s just a matter before he dumps me.’ But he stuck with me and it was so cool to work with him and learn from him and be a student of the sport from one of the best.”
Little did he know Gordon’s assistance would be a vote of approval in the garage.
Bayne scored a top 10 in the Nationwide race on Saturday — in what he accurately predicted would be a wreck-fest.
On Sunday morning, Bayne was ready to go. After his performance in the Gatorade Duel, he wasn’t short of dancing partners. He hooked up with Gordon early and avoided a big wreck on Lap 29 — which collected one-fourth of the field. Bayne drafted with Martin Truex Jr., too, but once Bayne lined up with David Ragan, the youngsters remained with the front tandems until the end. Bobby Labonte pushed Bayne late in the final winning run.
As Bayne attempted to find the way to Victory Lane, his parents, Rocky and Stephanie, who were up in the grandstands with friends, fought through tears and the crowd to reach the celebration.
Richard Petty, who is officially listed as the owner of record on the No. 21 after the organization secured points from one of his teams in order to be locked into the first five races, grabbed Wood Brothers patriarch Glen Wood by the arm to join the party while Glen Wood’s wife, Bernece, stayed back and the transporter and greeted well wishers.
For Bayne, Sunday was pure celebration. For the Wood Brothers, the win was cathartic. After missing the 2008 Daytona 500 — an experience Eddie Wood considers one of the lowest moments of his life-long racing career — the return to Victory Lane after nearly 10 years left him uncharacteristically speechless. The ability to walk into Victory Lane with his father, Petty and Edsel Ford II, who sat on the No. 21 pit box through the race, was a memory Wood will never forget.
The reception line was immense. Gordon, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Jack Roush, former Michael Waltrip Racing teammates and NASCAR president Mike Helton all stopped by to congratulate the youngest winner in Daytona 500 history. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.’s granddaughter, Lesa France, who currently runs International Speedway Corp., shared tears of joy with Wood, a childhood friend.
Wood’s wife, Carol, left for home halfway through the race. Wood had contemplated sending his clothes back with her — then thought better of it. Something just told him he’d still be at Daytona on Monday.
Carol Wood had reached Brunswick, Ga., before having to race back to the track.
“I was going 90 all the way,” she said.
“You don’t know how to go 90,” Eddie Wood replied.
Bayne remained composed throughout his obligations in the media center. His parents said it didn’t hit Bayne until he returned to Victory Lane for a second time. Then he cried.
As Wingo, the Woods and the crew tore down the car for postrace inspection on Sunday night, then rebuilt the vehicle for Monday morning’s champion’s breakfast, Bayne’s family and friends gathered across the street at BJ’s for dinner.
The Baynes checked in with their children back in Knoxville and received calls and texts throughout the dinner. SportsCenter played on the flat screens in the semi-private room, highlighting the team’s accomplishment, but the ever-humble, just-turned-20-year-old could barely watch.
Stephanie Bayne voiced her concern she couldn’t reach her son after the win.
“Here I am, mama,” Trevor said sweetly from across the table.
Rocky Bayne remembered taking Trevor to his first race at Bristol with his 5-year-old son wearing a Rainbow Warriors jacket and having his picture taken with Gordon and then-crew chief Ray Evernham.
“I still have that photo in a scrapbook,” Rocky Bayne said.
The family exchanged scriptures and text messages after the win.
Trevor recited a note, “manage your mountain tops and your valleys won’t be as bad . . . "
Asked about his contract situation beyond 2011, he responded: “I’d be happy right here forever”
As the evening went on, the party expanded from three tables to six as well-wishers dropped by and the crew finally arrived —sans the Wood Brothers. For the family from Stuart, Va., a big party was not how they wanted to remember the moment. Instead . . .
Text at 11:03 from Eddie Wood: At Steak n Shake.
Considering the folks who frequent the popular hamburger joint recognize the brothers’ voices through the loudspeaker whether they drive through for breakfast, lunch or dinner, there’s no other place you’d expect them to be.