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ThatsRacin.com


Bayne wins for Woods, and does it David Pearson's way

THATSRACIN.COM OPINION

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history, 20-year-old Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 Sunday, making him the youngest winner in the 53-year history of NASCAR’s Great American Race.

Bayne is too young to legally buy alcohol or, in most cases, to rent a car. He was a teen-ager from Tennessee when he arrived at Daytona earlier this month, only turning 20 Saturday. But he out-drove several of stock-car racing’s veterans Sunday, blasting to a victory in only his second race in NASCAR’s top series.

Bayne then had trouble finding where he was supposed to celebrate, missing the turn to Victory Lane and having to throw the car into reverse to get there.

“I didn’t know how to get to Victory Lane,” said Bayne, who sported a giddy smile for hours after the race. “But we will find our way back, hopefully.”

If the most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., wasn’t going to win the race held on the 10th anniversary of his father’s death (he finished 24th after a late crash), this was the next-best scenario for NASCAR.

Bayne is God-fearing, apple-cheeked and personable. He likes to play the guitar, wear T-shirts, snowboard and use Twitter.

In other words, Bayne hits an ideal demographic for NASCAR, whose television ratings and attendance dropped dramatically in 2010. And stock car racing's next major star might have been born on Sunday.

You will be hard-pressed to miss Bayne this week as his publicity machine revs from 0 to 200 mph.

“He’s about to have the greatest week of his life,” said Carl Edwards, who finished second when Bayne neatly blocked Edwards’ charge during the overtime finish.

Edwards reconsidered, perhaps thinking of his wife and baby: “I mean, until he has children.”

Bayne isn’t close to having children. As he tweeted a week ago on Valentine’s Day: “Happy valentine’s day! Too bad I’m ridin solo! Haha”

Bayne is so young that he idolized Jeff Gordon growing up. He’s so young that he was 9 years old when Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona in 2001.

He’s so young that he only shaves once a week and has said “Rugrats” is his favorite TV show.

Did Bayne really come from nowhere to win the Daytona 500?

Not quite. While he sounds as if he hails from Disney central casting, he really came from Knoxville – where he sometimes skipped other kids’ birthday parties to race go-karts.

At age 5.

So about 75 percent of Bayne’s life has been headed toward this moment. He stopped going to high school midway through, obtaining his G.E.D. online so he could concentrate on a racing career.

That career has had some stumbles. Although Sunday start was only Bayne’s second in NASCAR’s headline series, Sprint Cup, he has started 51 races in the second-tier Nationwide Series since 2008. He’s gone 0-for-51 there. He has lost rides and sponsors, but always gained others.

Bayne won Sunday in a No. 21 Ford retrofitted to resemble the cars David Pearson drove for the well-loved Wood Brothers team. Sunday's victory was the Woods' first in the Daytona 500 since Pearson's in 1976.

“He [Bayne] has got a tremendous awareness in the car,” said Eddie Wood, co-owner of the No.21 car. “The great ones are like that.”

Sunday’s race was also notable for its record number of both lead changes (74) and caution flags (16). Bayne stayed out of trouble, missing a 14-car wreck wiped out several favorites early.

Pearson, a longtime master of not leading until the end of the race, as Bayne did Sunday, advised the young driver before the race began to be careful.

“I told him to keep his head straight and not to do anything crazy,” Pearson said.

The racing at this year’s Daytona 500 was dominated by cars breaking away two at a time, and Bayne was generally a “pusher” throughout the race.

But he found himself in the front after a series of caution flags and held off every charge with the aid of a very fast car.

“They gave me a rocket ship,” Bayne said of his team.

The victory stunned most everyone. On the Fox Sports telecast, analyst Darrell Waltrip showed what he said was his “bio sheet” about Bayne. It was a blank piece of typing paper.

While normally well-spoken, Bayne veered off course a couple of times in his post-race news conference.

“Sorry if I’m bouncing around on questions and answers,” Bayne said. “Figure I can do whatever I want to – it’s just a dream anyway.”

Bayne is only a part-time driver in the Sprint Cup series. He finished 17th in his only other Cup race, last year in Texas. “I almost feel undeserving,” he said Sunday.

The Wood Brothers team planned to run Bayne in 17 of 36 Cup races this year, but that might change now. Bayne will remain a full-time driver in the Nationwide Series (where he started a Bible study group last year that ultimately included 12 veteran drivers).

Bayne officially declared that the Nationwide championship was the one he was shooting for this season, meaning that he earned zero points Sunday in the Sprint Cup series.

But he got the trophy, the winner’s purse of $1.46 million and the chance to introduce himself to a sport that certainly could use a new star.

Second-place finisher Edwards has become a good friend of Bayne’s.

“I think,” Edwards said, “the world is going to like him a lot.”

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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