DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Trevor Bayne finally made a mistake. Fortunately for him, it didn't happen until he missed the turn pulling into Victory Lane at the Daytona 500.
The youngest driver to win the Great American Race gave the historic Wood Brothers team its fifth Daytona 500 victory – its first since 1976 with David Pearson – and Bayne did it in a No. 21 Ford that was retrofitted to resemble Pearson’s famed ride.
In just his second Sprint Cup start, the 20-year-old Bayne stunned NASCAR’s biggest names with a thrilling overtime win Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, holding off Carl Edwards after fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. crashed in NASCAR’s first attempt at a green-white-checkered flag finish.
“Our first 500, are you kidding me?” said Bayne, who needed directions to Victory Lane. “Wow. This is unbelievable.”
One day after celebrating his 20th birthday, the aw-shucks Tennessean who shaves once a week and considers “Rugrats” his favorite TV show captured the sport’s biggest race.
When he found himself at the front, and victory just two laps away, he never thought it would last.
“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?’ ”
Bayne thought for sure Tony Stewart or someone else would attempt to pass.
“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.”
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 past 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.
This was the team that fielded cars for icons Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison, A.J. Foyt, Neil Bonnett, Buddy Baker and Dale Jarrett during racing’s halcyon days.
The last time the Wood Brothers won a Sprint Cup race was in 2001 at Bristol with Elliott Sadler.
“When you miss a race, like the Daytona 500, it’s like somebody died,” said Eddie Wood, part of the second generation 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 loan 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 will now 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.”