DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Had one not watched Sunday’s race (Feb. 20), the stats sheet would likely tell a tale that had Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500 on account of a race-record 16 cautions that decimated the field, the only car left standing in a 500-miler that even for a plate-race was a calamity.
That stats sheet wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s printed on.
There is no doubt that the never-ending parade of yellow flags seen on the high banks of Daytona Beach this Sunday had a tremendous impact on the Cup field, with countless contenders from defending champion Jimmie Johnson early on lap 29 to Dale Earnhardt Jr. late in the running falling victim to the pairs-tandem drafting that defined Speedweeks 2011 gone wrong.
Wrecks took out half the Roush Fenway Racing stable, not to mention two-thirds of Joe Gibbs Racing’s fleet and the entire Hendrick Motorsports armada (at least those that are ‘officially’ Hendrick). And yes, Bayne was a surprise winner, even as surprise winners go.
But Bayne didn’t win this race because he was the last car left standing when the dust settled. Bayne won the Daytona 500. And he did it by beating NASCAR’s best on the sport’s biggest stage.
After becoming the Cinderella of the Gatorade Duels on Thursday, Brian Keselowski remarked that “he earned his way into the Daytona 500.” Bayne may have been locked in, thanks to owner points maneuvers in the offseason, but he took earning his spot in the 500 field to another level. Keselowski fought the battle of getting an outgunned race car into the field against motorsports juggernauts. Bayne had a different battle to fight… proving that he belonged in the sport’s premier race despite having only one previous Cup start.
It was a battle that the barely 20-year-old won convincingly every single time he took the wheel during Speedweeks. On Thursday, Bayne turned heads not only because of the speed of his No. 21 Ford, but more so because of just how good a pusher he proved to be. Latched on to the driver formerly known as “Wonderboy,” Bayne stayed glued to Jeff Gordon‘s bumper, and both the veteran and the prospect made it work for nearly the entire 150 miles before a late-race incident sent both drivers spinning.
The results may have not been there, but the impact made on the field was. When Saturday’s Nationwide Series race went green and the usual Cup suspects set forth to dominate the event, leading 109 of the 120 laps run, there was one regular that stayed up front while Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and others ran away from the field.
It was Trevor Bayne.
The stage was then set for Bayne to make noise on Sunday. Wheeling a fast car and having proved that he was more than capable of pushing even the best drivers in the field, Bayne went back to work as the 500 went green and the results stayed the same.
As veterans including Michael Waltrip and Juan Pablo Montoya failed to execute the treacherous two-car pairings cleanly over the course of the event, Bayne pushed at the front all race long without incident. About two-thirds through the race, when the rookie felt he needed to find a new drafting partner, his current one, Martin Truex Jr., was vocal over the radio in saying he didn’t want to find new help.
The defining moment came on lap 204. Starting on the front row alongside David Ragan, Bayne was able to get drafting help immediately following the drop of the green flag. That’s not notable… until one takes into account that on that exact same restart, while the rookie got help, two-time champion Stewart got hung out to dry.
The stage was set, and Bayne cashed in. Leading the field on the final lap, a hard-charging Carl Edwards and David Gilliland caught the pair of Bayne and Bobby Labonte in turn 4. Bayne threw perhaps the first block seen the entire afternoon on Edwards and ran a perfect line, not far removed from the yellow line.
It was just enough to make a slingshot impossible, just enough to keep the doors on both the high and low side closed. That, coupled with the anticipation Bayne demonstrated to dump his partner Labonte and block the final charge of Edwards and Gilliland, allowed Bayne to take the checkered flag despite being in Daytona’s most vulnerable position… the leader coming out of the final turn.
It was a veteran display behind the wheel, in a ride dripping with tradition and experience. Only it was a 20-year-old kid that made it work, in the most shocking upset Cup racing has seen since Brad Keselowski sent Edwards hurtling into the Talladega catchfence back in 2009.
Ironically, it was again Edwards who found his shot at victory lane derailed by a Nationwide Series regular running Cup races that were solely intended to produce seat time instead of trophies. But this time was different. Whereas Brad cashed in on Edwards’s making a mistake, coming down across his nose in a mad dash to the stripe, Bayne had no such advantage to capitalize on. He had to beat Edwards, Ford’s brightest star and their silver bullet fired Johnson’s way in 2011.
He did it and in doing so did something far more significant than even winning the Daytona 500 or returning the illustrious Wood Brothers to victory lane for the first time in a decade. Over the course of 520 miles on a Sunday afternoon, Bayne went from development prospect to the future of Ford’s stock car program.
Off the track, Bayne is a public relations dream. Dripping with an outgoing charisma, Bayne is the antithesis of Matt Kenseth.
A presence in the garage that has everyone that interacts with him, from the media to his fellow competitors, overwhelmed by his being a “good person” just as much as a wickedly talented racecar driver, Bayne has none of the personality issues that have plagued Edwards, be it on-track (Edwards rammed Earnhardt Jr. while Jr. had his arm extended out the window in victory celebration post-race at Michigan back in 2006 or flipping Brad Keselowski at Atlanta last year) or off (Edwards has had well-publicized tiffs internally at Roush with both teammates Kenseth and Greg Biffle).
On the track, yes, restrictor-plate racing is its own animal, while Bayne’s Nationwide Series results have been solid, but not phenomenal. Winning a restrictor-plate race does not the next Jeff Gordon make (even Kyle Krisiloff has come close to accomplishing that). But that ignores the intangible that goes into scoring the win no matter the challenge, no matter the odds.
And on this Sunday, the two most significant prospects Ford’s driver development has fielded since putting a Truck on track for Edwards, ended up squaring off in just such a situation. On the front row for lap 204 were two of the blue oval brigade. On the inside line was Bayne, a talent so notable that Roush Fenway Racing snapped him up the second Diamond Waltrip Racing announced last year that they didn’t have full sponsorship for their prospect… even though they didn’t have sponsorship for him either.
A talent so notable that the sport’s oldest team enlisted the youngest driver in the 2011 Daytona 500 field to drive their machine.
On the outside line was Ragan, the last man standing from a prolific 2006 Roush Racing driver search that saw Erik Darnell, Todd Kluever and Danny O’Quinn Jr. all signed to full-time rides while Ragan was retained to run a partial Truck schedule. As O’Quinn struggled with a patchwork of sponsorship and lackluster results and Kluever saw a fast start to the season dissipate into mediocrity, Ragan was fast-tracked into whatever ride Roush needed filled that weekend.
And when the dust settled, Ragan, despite having made only 22 Truck and Nationwide starts combined for the organization, was given the keys to the No. 6 Ford, the successor to Mark Martin.
The successor to Martin was anything but successful. With a win that easily could have resurrected what has been a lackluster career at Roush and injected new life into a faltering UPS sponsorship campaign built around him, Ragan broke a cardinal rule and changed lanes before reaching the stripe to take the green flag for the lap 204 restart, resulting in a black flag that relegated the No. 6 team to a disappointing 14th place result.
The pressure was on, yet it was the rookie that came out on top and brought both Ford and their most historic race team to Daytona’s victory lane.
Over the past four days in Daytona Beach, Trevor Bayne has done some very big things. In drafting to perfection with Jeff Gordon during Thursday’s Duels, Bayne earned the respect of a four-time champion and the rest of the Cup field in just his second time Cup racing. A stark contrast to Ragan, whose second career Cup start at Martinsville was so ugly that Stewart referred to him as “a dart without feathers,” leading NASCAR to deny him the opportunity to attempt Atlanta the following week.
On Saturday, Bayne carried the flag for the Nationwide Series regulars for much of 300 miles, teaming with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to score two top-10 finishes for RFR’s No. 6 and 16 teams, a stark contrast to last year’s Daytona opener that saw the same teams leave with two wadded-up racecars and two finishes outside the top 30.
On Sunday, Bayne held off Ford’s favorite for the 2011 Cup title, won NASCAR’s biggest race and returned the Wood Brothers to racing relevance.
The future of Ford Racing has arrived.
About the author
Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.
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