NASCAR should embrace its boy wonder

The youngest ever winner of the Daytona 500 commanded an audience of several dozen Wednesday afternoon in a public square across the street from Staples Center.

They came with items for him to sign, of course: Dale Earnhardt Jr. caps and Jeff Gordon shirts and posters announcing the Auto Club 400 in Fontana a month from now. The alliance between contest and commerce is more explicit in NASCAR than any other sector of American sport. Still, there was nothing bearing his name or likeness.

In football and basketball, big-time recruits are hustling their college jerseys by the time they announce their signings. But Trevor Bayne is that rarest phenomenon: The Kid who arrives before his merchandise.

He’s got sponsorship for 18 Sprint Cup Races, for which he’ll be driving the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford. Unfortunately, he still needs Roush Fenway to get him a sponsor for his day job in the Nationwide Series.

Then again, the sponsors weren’t the only ones caught by surprise. Bayne wasn’t exactly predicting victory, either. “I never thought we were going to win, the whole time,” he said. “Even after we won.”

The last guy who won Daytona on his first try was Lee Petty, in the inaugural race back in 1959. He was a month shy of his 35th birthday. Jeff Gordon, the previous youngest winner, was 25 when he won at Daytona. By comparison, Dale Sr. didn’t win until he was 46.

The last three drivers to win were Ryan Newman (30), Matt Kenseth (36) and Jamie McMurray (33). None is exactly a household name. In fact, after winning the Great American Race none of them went on to qualify for the Chase.

That’s not what NASCAR needs. And that brings me back to the Trevor Bayne. Phenom or fluke?

I don’t know. The gearheads don’t know, either, else they would’ve alerted you as to his existence a couple of weeks ago. Bayne doesn’t know himself. But if there were ever a time for NASCAR to mint a new star, it’s right about now.

“We have to keep the expectations realistic,” Bayne cautioned Wednesday.

Nonsense. Realistic expectations are the enemy here. Realistic expectations are exactly what this recession-plagued sport does not need. NASCAR needs an infusion of new blood, new characters, new storylines. In short, NASCAR needs unrealistic expectations. NASCAR needs 20-year-olds winning Daytona.

“You got a girlfriend?” I ask.

“No,” he said it sheepishly.

“Who’d you take to the prom?” I asked.

“I didn’t get to go to the prom my junior or senior year,” he said. “I was racing.”

“Racing what?”

“I don’t remember. I think it was K&N East race . . . That’s the first time I’ve been asked that, though. That’s a good one.”

“What about Valentine’s Day?”

“Valentine’s Day I was riding solo for the last two years, man. I was by myself in Daytona. Not much love life there.”

“Not the free kind anyway.”

I don’t know if he got the joke. The kid’s pretty straight and very devout. Just the same, there’s a refreshingly ingenuous quality about him — even if he is being compared to Justin Bieber. Trevor Bayne is 20 going on 16 — except when he gets behind the wheel of a race car. By now, you might know that Bayne has a preternatural gift for bump-drafting, and that Jeff Gordon trusted him enough not to wreck him in the qualifying rounds.

“Jeff is one of the guys who actually watches other races besides the Cup series,” said Bayne. “He watches the Nationwide series. He watches the truck series. He’s seen me growing up. He knows that wasn’t my first race ever. He trusted me.”

As a kid in grade school, Bayne had his photograph taken with his idol, Gordon, in the garage in Bristol, Tenn. Still, all these years later, the other racers took their cue from Gordon.

“His confidence in me rubbed off on all the other drivers,” said Bayne.

At Daytona, he drafted with Jeff Gordon, David Ragan, Robby Gordon and Martin Truex Jr. Finally, Bobby Labonte gave him the push he needed to win.

I asked him when he last shaved.

“Three or four days ago,” he said.

I think he’s lying. A razor company should make a run at this kid and record his very first shave.

“Gillette, here we come,” he said.

Trevor Bayne, of Mooresville, N.C., by way of Knoxville, Tenn., was feeling pretty good about himself. The day before, he’d been to San Francisco, where the girls showed up with placards.

“Trevor,” they read, “Marry Me!”