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Bayne, Wood Brothers stun field, pull off Daytona 500 upset
by Matt Taliaferro
A wide-eyed kid looked incredulously out the window of his Ford after doing burnouts on the Daytona International Speedway tri-oval, not sure of what he was supposed to do next. And he really didn’t; Trevor Bayne didn’t know the way to Daytona 500 Victory Lane.
Having turned 20 years old just one day prior, Bayne was making his second career Sprint Cup start on Sunday, and his first in the Great American Race. But as the sun set over the massive Daytona grandstand, Bayne was about to accept the most coveted hardware in NASCAR: the Harley J. Earle Trophy, having out-dueled a handful of the sport’s veterans in the 53rd running of the Daytona 500.
Bayne’s story is suddenly a meteoric one. Unheralded in comparison to fellow 20-year old Joey Logano, Bayne joined the NASCAR ranks in the K&N Pro East Series, a veritable Single-A division to Cup’s major leagues. Making only 15 starts in the East Series from 2007-09 with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., Bayne signed with Michael Waltrip Racing in ’09 to run a partial Nationwide Series schedule before losing that ride when sponsorship dried up near the end of the 2010 season.
Team owner Jack Roush knew a good thing when he saw one and snatched up the suddenly-unemployed driver. Running largely unsponsored with Roush in the Nationwide ranks late in the 2010 season, Bayne impressed to the point that the legendary Wood Brothers organization came calling — at Roush’s bequest. This season’s plans were to run a 17-race slate with the Woods in Cup — in the iconic No. 21 Ford, no less — while competing full-time for Roush in the Nationwide Series.
And that brings us to Speedweeks 2011, where Bayne posted the third-fastest lap on pole qualifying day last Sunday. He then served as Jeff Gordon’s unofficial wingman in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel race, being hand-picked by the four-time champ to be his drafting partner. However, a strong run in the Duel ended in heartache, when he was swept up in Gordon’s wreck as the field took the checkered flag.
Starting 31st in the 500, Bayne had a rocketship — one that other drivers trusted in the two-car drafts after the confidence shown by Gordon, his childhood idol, during the Duel.
“I actually owe a lot of this to Jeff Gordon for helping me in those Duel races and showing these others drivers that we belonged here,” Bayne said. “He came to Victory Lane and it’s just so cool to see your childhood hero to come and congratulate you and be a part of it.”
If Gordon was spreading the word that Bayne could be trusted, the other drivers took the message to heart. A record 16 cautions marred the 500, and the youngster was able to keep his Motorcraft Ford — a car that was patched together after Thursday’s Duel wreck — out of trouble.
“That thing was so fast, so we were at the front,” he explained. “It seemed like every time the caution came out we were in front of the (wreck). Anyone I got behind, no matter what manufacturer, no matter who was driving it, it would push them right to the front. It made me look good today.”
At no time did he look better than on the event’s second green-white-checker finish — NASCAR’s equivalent of double-overtime. Bayne led the field to green for a two-lap shootout with Cup veterans Bobby Labonte on his bumper and Tony Stewart alongside. While Labonte stayed glued to Bayne, Stewart faded, giving way to the two-car tandem of Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya. But as the field screamed down the backstretch one final time, Carl Edwards and David Gilliland drafted by Busch and Montoya, catching the lead duo. Getting by Labonte coming out of Turn 4, Edwards made a run at the No. 21, but was denied by blocks thrown right and left by Bayne.
“I couldn’t get there,” Edwards said of the lead. “The only thing I maybe could have done is push Trevor a little harder and move up and try it (another pass).”
Edwards, Gilliland, Labonte and Busch rounded out the top 5. And while Bayne’s two Cup starts was in glaring contrast to that quartet’s combined 46 years of Cup duty, his team’s foundation pre-dates any other at Daytona. The Wood Brothers is one of the most legendary teams in NASCAR, an outfit that dates back to 1953 and boasts 93 wins with drivers such as David Pearson, A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough and Neil Bonnett.
A changing NASCAR landscape relegated the once-title-contending powerhouse to a partial schedule following the 2006 season. And with a revolving door of drivers manning the wheel, the Woods hit rock bottom three years ago at, ironically enough, Daytona.
"The lowest point was missing this race in '08,” co-owner Eddie Wood said. “Our family had been coming down here since the '50s, and they never missed one until we missed it. The lowest point for me was that day.
"We came back to the track and hung out, because we had a lot of guests coming. But it's almost like when you miss a race, especially the Daytona 500, it's like somebody died. When you walk through the garage, you run into people that you see every week, and they're afraid to look at you. It's like they don't know what to say.”
So how could anyone expect a down-on-its-luck team with a kid with next to no experience to slay the Goliath’s of the Cup Series on the sport’s grandest stage?
"When we kind of started downhill, you begin to think you can never get back,” Wood continued. “But you keep trying. Just the fact that you want one more trophy — one more trophy — you can't quit. And we never quit. We just kept trying."
So with that one trophy Wood referenced, the biggest upset in Daytona 500 history under his belts and 16 more races Cup races panned in 2011, the young driver that didn’t even know the way to Victory Lane has given a seasoned team a new sense of credibility and, more important, a renewed purpose.