DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The Wood Brothers were once a juggernaut in NASCAR, a family team that perfected the modern pit stop and raced to win after win with David Pearson behind the wheel of the powerful No. 21 machine.
As the years passed, though, the brothers got left behind.
Big-spending teams swiped their innovations, assembled a garage full of stars and pushed the Woods to the back of the field, scrambling just to get one car on the track.
“Things haven’t been easy for us the last few years,” said 85-year-old Glen Wood, one of the team’s founders.
Well, look who was back in Victory Lane on Sunday.
In the biggest event of all, no less.
Twenty-year-old Trevor Bayne held on for a stunning win in the Daytona 500, becoming the youngest winner of the Great American Race while driving for NASCAR’s oldest team.
Fittingly, he steered a Ford adorned with a throwback red-and-white paint scheme, much like the one that was on the car for so many of Pearson’s wins.
“I had hope,” Wood said, looking toward the winner’s circle as the triumphant day turned to night, still a bit of disbelief in his eyes. “But it’s been a long time since we won.”
Nearly a decade, to be exact.
The Wood Brothers’ last win had been with Elliott Sadler at Bristol in 2001. The team hasn’t been able to afford a full-time ride the past few years, picking and choosing their events while rarely running near the front of the pack against powerful teams such as Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing.
Considering where this team used to be, becoming an also-ran didn’t go down easily.
“It was very hard to deal with,” said Wood, who has turned over the day-to-day operations to his sons Eddie and Len. “There have been some depressing times. I wouldn’t deny that. But they’ve kept their heads above water and somehow managed to do with what we had. To come out and win this is just unbelievable.”
Bayne’s victory was the 98th for the Wood Brothers, who had their greatest success in the 1970s with Pearson behind the wheel, Glen and his brother Leonard running things behind the wall.
From 1972-78, the Silver Fox won 43 races even though he never ran a full schedule. His most dominating performance came in ‘73, when he posted 11 wins and three other top-five finishes in 18 starts. Three years later, he gave the Wood Brothers what had been their most recent Daytona 500 victory until Sunday.
HONORING NO. 3
Even though the 10-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death came two days earlier, there were plenty of people remembering The Intimidator at Daytona International Speedway.
Two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart wore a black No. 3 baseball cap. So did most everyone at Richard Childress Racing.
NASCAR officials showed a highlight video of previous Daytona 500s during the pre-race drivers meeting, and the late Earnhardt was prominent in the piece.
Daytona officials had a huge No. 3 painted in the infield grass.
On the third lap, Fox television broadcasters observed a moment of silence while fans saluted Earnhardt by holding up three fingers.
“I feel honored and once again undeserving to be here 10 years after that for the anniversary,” said Bayne, who was 9 years old when Earnhardt died.
His memories of that day, though, are clear.
“I was at my grandparents’ house watching the race when the accident happened.,” he said. “We lived about five miles away from my grandparents. As soon as the race was over, I left my grandparents and went to our house. That’s when the announcement was made.
“Our whole family, you know the impact it had on everybody, all teary-eyed. I knew the significance Dale Earnhardt had on our sport, what an amazing man he was.
“It’s crazy that we’re sitting here 10 years later. It’s gone by fast. I remember everything about that. It’s crazy.”