DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Leading on the final lap of the Daytona 500, a pack of veterans baring down on his bumper, Trevor Bayne didn’t panic.
He figured it would be a cool story to tell someday, how he led a lap in NASCAR’s biggest show.
Somebody, maybe Tony Stewart, would pass him any moment and Bayne would dutifully push him to the win.
But the pack never came. Nobody ever passed him, and with one smooth block of Carl Edwards, Bayne pulled off a stunning upset.
Unworthy? He sure thought so.
Unbelievable? That’s Daytona for you.
“This is so crazy. I don’t even know what to say,” Bayne said after Sunday’s win. “I almost feel undeserving because … all these guys out here that are racing against us that have been trying to do this for so long.”
It took Dale Earnhardt 20 years to win the Great American Race, and on the 10th anniversary of his death in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Bayne because the youngest winner in race history.
Bayne won a day after his 20th birthday, in his first Daytona 500, in his second Sprint Cup Series start. And he did it with the Wood Brothers, NASCAR’s oldest team, a pioneering organization that had fallen on hard times over the last two decades.
Although Bayne gave the Woods’ its fifth Daytona 500 victory — and first since David Pearson in 1976 — it was the team’s first Cup win since 2001.
That’s what happens, though, in NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl, a race known to break the hearts of the most hardened veterans. This year was no different, with a record 74 lead changes among 22 drivers, and a record 16 cautions that wiped out many of the main contenders.
That included Dale Earnhardt Jr., who found himself in the middle of the pack and out of contention because of a late flat tire when he was wrecked on the first attempt at NASCAR’s version of overtime. His entire Hendrick Motorsports team had a rough day: five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin were all caught in an early 14-car accident.
And Richard Childress Racing, the class of the field all of Speedweeks, lost Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton to engine failures, and Clint Bowyer, who led 31 laps, was wrecked late.
So it put a slew of unusual suspects out front at the end, and Bayne took over the lead when David Ragan, winless in 147 career starts, was penalized for changing lanes on the first restart. Bayne thought it was neat to be out front, but the aw-shucks Tennessean figured Stewart and Co. were coming.
“I’m a little bit worried that one of them is going to come after me tonight,” he said. “I’m going to have to sleep with one eye open. That’s why I said I felt a little undeserving. I’m leading, and I’m saying, ‘Who can I push?’
“We get to turn four, and we were still leading the band,” he said. “It seemed a little bit too easy there at the end.”
The rookie had been great throughout Speedweeks, even proving his mettle by pushing four-time champion Jeff Gordon for most of a qualifying race, a performance Bayne said convinced the veterans he could be trusted on the track.
“I figured they had a chance after seeing that boy race in the 150s,” said Pearson, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in May. “I talked to him this morning. I told him to keep his head straight and not to do anything crazy. I told him to stay relaxed. I’m proud of him.”
With the win Bayne breaks Gordon’s mark as the youngest winner in Daytona 500 history. Gordon was 25 when he won the 500 in 1997.
“I think it’s very cool. Trevor’s a good kid, and I love the Wood Brothers,” Gordon said. “I’m really happy for him. And I think it’s great for the sport. To have a young talent like that — he’s got that spark, you know?”
The victory for NASCAR pioneers Leonard and Glen Wood ended a 10-year-losing streak and came the week of the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s fatal accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
This was only the fourth win in the last 20 years for Wood Brothers — NASCAR’s oldest team — which hasn’t run a full Sprint Cup season since 2006 and hit the low point of their 61-year-old existence when they failed to qualify for the 2008 Daytona 500.
“When you miss a race, like the Daytona 500, it’s like somebody died,” said Eddie Wood, part of the second generation of Woods now running the team. “When you walk through the garage and you run into people you see every week, they don’t look at you, they don’t know what to say.”
The rebuild has been slow, and they got Bayne this year for 17 races, on loaner from Roush-Fenway Racing, the team that snatched him up late last season when Michael Waltrip Racing — which gave Bayne his start in 2009 — couldn’t promise a sponsor for this season.
So it was on to Roush, which plans for Bayne to run for the Nationwide Series title this season, and a deal was made to get him some seat time in the Cup Series with the Woods. It wouldn’t be for points, and he wasn’t eligible to run for rookie of the year.
But the stunning Daytona 500 win — and the $1,462,563 payday — might change everybody’s plans. The team already said it now will go to Martinsville, the sixth race of the season, which had not been on its original schedule.
Bayne could possibly retract his decision to run for the Nationwide title.
“I don’t even know if that’s an option,” Bayne said.
Edwards wound up second in a Ford and seemed genuinely happy for Bayne.
“Second place in the Daytona 500 feels way worse than any other position I’ve ever finished in the Daytona 500,” Edwards said. “But that is made better by listening to Trevor and how excited he is. He is really a nice young man, a great guy to represent this sport with this win.
“I think the world’s going to like him a lot.”
David Gilliland finished third and was followed by Bobby Labonte and Kurt Busch. Juan Pablo Montoya was sixth, Regan Smith seventh, and Kyle Busch, Paul Menard and Martin rounded out the top 10.
Stewart, who was second behind Bayne on the final restart, faded to 13th and is now winless in 13 career Daytona 500s.
Earnhardt Jr. wound up 24th.