DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The placement of his replica of the Harley J. Earl Trophy, given to the winner of the Daytona 500, spoke volumes about Trevor Bayne’s humility as much as his youthful exuberance.
They were traits that imbued his improbable victory as a 20-year-old rookie for Wood Brothers Racing in NASCAR’s season-opening event last year.
But Bayne did not have a special cabinet made for it. Or have it placed in a glass case. That would have been too pretentious for the unaffected Bayne, who was initially awestruck by the adulation his first Sprint Cup triumph brought him.
But he remained grounded by his faith and ties to friends and family back home in Knoxville, Tenn., where he chose to put his hardware on display in his boyhood bedroom, among his cherished go-kart and Allison Legacy racing trophies.
“I thought it was cool having it there because all my friends that I grew up with and my family can come over and check it out and see it,’’ Bayne said.
But a museum-quality exhibit, it is not.
“It’s on my dresser just hanging out,’’ Bayne said. “It’s still got Gatorade and confetti on it.’’
None of it has worn off. Nor have any of the memories Bayne forged during the whirlwind year he spent as Daytona 500 champion.
“It’s crazy because last year when I came here I was so under the radar,’’ said Bayne, who started third and held off a last-lap surge by Carl Edwards. “I didn’t expect any of this. I just came in as a guy that had been running Nationwide and had a great opportunity to run with an awesome team.
“So here I am at Daytona, driving in with my truck, and I remember looking at that podium in the center of the track all weekend long like, ‘How cool would that be to finish third?’ And they were talking about the winnings and just how awesome a top-three [finish] would be, and then we win the thing.
“I’m driving out and I remember looking back at that [podium] and seeing the 21 at the top of the board and the crazy feeling that it was. I don’t think it even sunk in - like the whole Victory Lane thing. I’m just bouncing around everywhere and the next day I’m on the plane and I look down and I see that ring and I almost teared up.’’
That’s when Bayne realized, “Man, this is real.’’
It became even more surreal the day after when he found himself on a media blitz.
“Here I am just a kid who has no idea what’s going to happen,’’ Bayne said, “and we were in New York, I think, and I’m on the phone with Vice President Joe Biden. I talked to Tim Tebow that day. I met Pamela Anderson, Ellen DeGeneres, and George Lopez all on the same day and I’m like, ‘What just happened?’
“It’s not something you wake up from and go on the next day, so I’m excited to be back here,’’ said Bayne, who came to Daytona this year with no guarantee of a spot in the 43-car grid. He locked up the 40th starting spot for tomorrow’s 54th running by ranking as the fastest among the non-exempt qualifiers (ninth overall) with a lap of 193.615 miles per hour last Sunday.
“I’m trying to get back to that same mind-set of just appreciating being here to begin with,’’ Bayne said. “But you do want to back that up and you do want to win and do all those things again, so hopefully we have a better insight of what our goal is.’’
The experience was even more real when Bayne returned to Daytona last July. He was healed from a bout with Lyme disease that nearly derailed his season and forced him to sit out six consecutive races.
When Bayne returned to Daytona to race in the Coke Zero 400 in the No. 21 Ford, his second race since the illness, the memories came flooding back.
“We were going around the track for the first lap in practice and I saw the start-finish line coming up, and I got that whole feeling of being tense and nervous,’’ Bayne said. “Every time I watch it on TV, it’s the same thing. I turn my back on it because I still get nervous that something is going to happen, so it’s the same deal every time.’’
As improbable as Bayne’s victory was how he came to find himself driving for Wood Brothers Racing, which had visited Daytona’s Victory Lane four times before with legends Tiny Lund (1963), Cale Yarborough (1968), A.J. Foyt (1972), and David Pearson (1976).
Last year, the Wood Brothers cast their lot with Bayne in an arranged marriage brokered by car owner Jack Roush. When the Wood Brothers came to him looking for help finding a crew chief after David Hyder left the team, Roush did them one better. He put together a deal for the last three races of the season that included two new cars, crew chief Donnie Wingo, an engineer, and Bayne, whose boyish charm and good looks made him a teen idol on the Nationwide Series.
Although Bill Elliott had been contracted to run at Texas for the Wood Brothers, Roush Fenway needed the Wood Brothers to run Bayne at Texas, so he could get NASCAR approval to run at Daytona in February. Elliott agreed to step aside and served as Bayne’s mentor at Texas.
“We had a really good run that day,’’ said Len Wood, who along with his brother Eddie took up second-generation stewardship of his family’s race team from their father, Glen, and uncle, Leonard. “We finished 17th, but passed a lot of cars, something like 140. We talked with Ford and Motorcraft and Trevor Bayne fit what they were looking for at Daytona.
“I’ll tell you, we didn’t know what we were working on, because they had to run him at Texas to get him approved for Daytona. So we helped in the approval process and it benefited us. It was dumb luck or something. Whatever it was, it worked.’’
Bayne is back at Daytona, and although he is still under contract to Roush Fenway, they have yet to procure him the funding needed to give him a full-time Cup or Nationwide ride.
“As a young guy, experience is important and it’s crucial for me to be in the car as much as possible is my goal,’’ said Bayne, who turned 21 last Sunday. “But I’m fortunate to be one of the guys that’s in the sport that didn’t bring any money to the table or didn’t have my own sponsorship where my parents own a big business, so to have Roush Fenway fund me last year with no sponsorship was a big deal for them.
“It would be kind of hard to expect them to fund a full Cup team this year, two Nationwide teams, and all that. So I am a little disappointed because I want to be racing all the time, but like I said, I’m going to make the best of it and just go out there and try to win every weekend.’’
Tomorrow, Bayne would like nothing more than to become the first driver to win back-to-back Daytona 500s since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95. If he does succeed, Bayne will just have to make room on his dresser back home for another Harley J. Earl replica.
“That’s the plan,’’ Bayne said. “We wouldn’t have come if we didn’t think we could win. There’s a little bit more pressure this year. We’re not exactly flying under the radar, but I think we can go for it, that’s for sure.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.