DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.
A day after his 20th birthday, Bayne won NASCAR’s most prestigious race. In his second Cup start. With a team that hadn't won since 2001.
He came to Daytona a true Cup rookie; he left it as the Daytona 500 champion.
At a glance, that might seem like a fluke, but forget about that. Bayne has been a hot property throughout Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway. He worked with Jeff Gordon in the qualifying race, actually giving some advice to the four-time Cup champion.
“He’s got a tremendous awareness, I guess, in the car,” team co-owner Eddie Wood said of Bayne. “The great ones are like that. I’ve listened to a lot of drivers on the radio. He reminds me of the great ones. He will be a great one.
“I told somebody the other day that I felt like he just might be the next big deal, and I think he is.”
Bayne worked with a series of top drivers throughout the Daytona 500, a race that required drivers to work in two-car tandems with one pushing the other in order to make up ground.
Until the final laps of the race, he was continually pushing others to the front of the field and into contention for the win.
Bayne thought it would end that way. He lined up behind fellow Ford driver David Ragan of Roush Fenway Racing on the first green-white-checkered, then watched as the only driver in front of him was penalized for jumping the restart and as those behind him crashed and caused another restart in NASCAR’s version of overtime.
And then there he was, leading the Daytona 500 on what turned out to be the final restart. Bobby Labonte pushed him around the track, then as the field separated from its two-car packs and tried to catch him in the final yards, he stormed to the checkered flag.
As it waved, he was as surprised as anyone that he was the Daytona 500 champion.
In a week filled with stirring stories, the energetic and charismatic young man took things to a new level. He brought one of the greatest teams in NASCAR history back to Victory Lane for the first time in 10 years. He joined such legendary drivers as A.J. Foyt and David Pearson in winning the Daytona 500 for the famed Wood Brothers. Bayne captured the imagination of fans everywhere as he stormed to victory in what, at this point, is a part-time Cup effort.
He’s not even in the running for the Cup championship this year, as he has opted to race for the Nationwide Series title. Drivers must choose one series in which to run for the championship, and the decision cannot be changed one it's made. After trying to gain a foothold, Bayne's just trying to run a full slate of races in any series.
Over the course of Speedweeks he has charmed a fan base just getting to know him and garnered the respect of a slate of NASCAR veterans.
“I really had a blast working with Trevor Bayne,” Gordon said. “He’s a good kid. He’s a heck of a race car driver.”
“As a friend of Trevor’s, it’s amazing to watch him have that success,” said Carl Edwards, who finished second to Bayne in the 500. “I’ve only known him for a short time, but he’s what seems to be truly a good guy. I think a lot of people in the sport see that. Hopefully, a lot of the fans see that.”
“He's amazing,” said two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, for whom Bayne originally raced in the Nationwide Series before joining Roush Fenway Racing in that series and the Wood Brothers in the Cup this season.
“We love having him on our team. He's got a good heart. He's a good kid. . . . That's the fun thing. When somebody shows up you never heard of before, all of a sudden they can go out there and run with Jeff Gordon, that's pretty cool.”
Sometimes, though, he’s just a kid who's 20 years (and one day) old.
Asked about the championship drivers he held off to grab the win, guys who never have won the Daytona 500 — like Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Kurt Busch and Mark Martin — Bayne joked that he'd better watch out for them.
“Now that you put it that way, I’m a little worried that one of them is gonna come after me tonight,” he said with a laugh. “I’m going to have to sleep with one eye open, but that’s why I . . . felt a little undeserving, but (the Wood Brothers) definitely deserve it.”
Earlier this week, Bayne talked about what it would be like to win the race and give Ford its 600th victory as a manufacturer in NASCAR’s top division. Even then, he talked about how others might be more deserving.
Then suddenly there he was, grabbing it.
“The job the kid done today, I mean, you couldn’t ask for anything else,” crew chief Donnie Wingo said. “There at the end, hadn’t had the lead all day and get pushed. There at the end, he did what he needed to do.”
Throughout that last lap, Bayne kept waiting for things to change. Kept waiting to see who would slip in front of him that he could push to the win. He waited until late in that final lap, then decided it was his to battle for and switched to a more defensive type of maneuvering on the track.
“I was gonna brake and let Tony Stewart get down (and push him) and all of the sudden here comes (Bobby Labonte) just pushing away. . . . So I’m thinking, ‘We’re leading now'," he said.
"That’s kind of cool to say that we were leading on the start of the green-white-checkered.”
And then he was leading at the white flag — and he thought that was pretty cool, too. And then he was leading at the checkered.
He had to ask where to find Victory Lane. He’s going to need to buy a suit for his slate of appearances in New York this week as the Daytona 500 winner. He seemed stunned.
He hugged his mom, Stephanie, in Victory Lane, teasingly bumped against his crew chief and team owners throughout his postrace interview. The reality had yet to set in.
“If I tried to put it into words, I wouldn’t be doing it any justice, that’s for sure,” he said.
He was still trying to convince himself that this was real. After all, he says he didn’t even really think about the possibility of winning the Daytona 500 this week.
“I honestly never thought about this win,” he said. “I mean, I didn’t expect it. . . . I still don’t think it’s real.”
During his postrace winner’s conference, he added: “Sorry if I’m bouncing around on questions and answers. Figure I can do whatever I want to, since it’s just a dream anyways.”
Yes, it was — both a dream and a reality for the rookie driver.
Bayne might be young, but he’s been putting in a lot of work toward building a Cup career. He’s been on the verge of full-time rides, but time after time, a lack of sponsorship put him back on the sideline.
He started with a development driver contract with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and started dreaming about one day being in Victory Lane at Daytona.
“I’d run to Victory Lane, congratulate whatever driver it was just to see what it was like out there,” he said.
And now he’s the one in Victory Lane.
“All the 500 winners, to be added to that list, period, is crazy, especially in our first attempt,” he said, flashing a captivating smile. “That’s just insane.”