DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – This year’s Daytona 500 was blanketed with emotion on the 10-year anniversary of the crash here that killed Dale Earnhardt, the iconic NASCAR champion known even to casual fans of stock car racing.
But Trevor Bayne, a Knoxville, Tenn., native who was about to turn 10 years old when Earnhardt died on the last lap of NASCAR’s crown-jewel race, marked a different 10-year milepost at Daytona with a shocking upset Sunday.
After surviving a spree of crashes that collected many of NASCAR’s top drivers, Bayne held off a charging Carl Edwards and David Gilliland to win a wild Daytona 500 for the Wood Brothers – a once-famous team that fell on hard times and hadn’t won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race since the year Earnhardt died.
Bayne did so one day after turning 20, becoming the youngest winner in the 53-year history of the Daytona 500 by a wide margin. Jeff Gordon previously held the record, winning the 1997 race at 25.
The win also came in only Bayne’s second race in NASCAR’s premier series; he mainly competes in its second-tier Nationwide Series.
The Wood Brothers “gave me a rocket ship” of a car, Bayne said, a No. 21 Ford that was painted in the same red, white and gold colors that made the team famous in the 1960s and ’70s with such legendary NASCAR drivers as Cale Yarborough and David Pearson.
Pearson, in fact, was the last Wood Brothers driver to win the Daytona 500, in 1976.
“I never expected to be sitting here,” Bayne said after celebrating in Victory Lane, which he briefly had trouble finding after crossing the finish line. “I can’t thank these guys enough. It’s incredible. This will be the best birthday celebration I’ve ever had.”
Edwards was second, Gilliland third and veteran Bobby Labonte was fourth.
For a sport hoping to reverse recent declines in attendance and television ratings, and for a Daytona 500 hoping to rebound from a debacle last year caused by a big pothole, Sunday’s season-opening race in front of an estimated 182,000 fans seemed the compelling remedy.
It began on the third lap with a tribute to Earnhardt, with fans going silent and holding up three fingers so that the only sound heard was the roar of the 43-car field barreling around the 2.5-mile, high-banked Daytona International Speedway.
But from that point on the race was tense, often chaotic and extremely competitive. It featured 74 lead changes among 22 drivers and 16 caution periods for 60 laps, all of which smashed previous records, and in the closing laps about a dozen drivers were only feet apart with a chance to win.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver and the sentimental favorite on the anniversary of his father’s death, led nine laps and still was in contention when the race went into a two-lap overtime finish, which was needed because the scheduled 200 laps ended under a caution period.
But a wreck involving Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr. also collected Earnhardt, who smashed into the backstretch wall and finished 24th.
“It just got crazy at the end,” Earnhardt said.
That crash forced a second two-lap overtime and Bayne, getting a powerful push from Labonte, held off Edwards – who likewise was getting a push from Gilliland – along with Kurt Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya and Regan Smith.
Drivers paired off like that all day long because, after the speedway was repaved in the offseason, teams discovered that two cars running nose to tail ran the fastest, as opposed to the packs of cars that formerly dominated Daytona racing.
But the changes didn’t eliminate the packs, or their danger.
On the 29th lap there was a massive crash in the middle of the field that involved 14 drivers, including reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, three-time Daytona 500 winner Gordon. They finished 27th and 28th, respectively, after their Chevrolets needed lengthy repairs.
Indeed, it wasn’t the NASCAR powerhouse teams such as Hendrick, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing that prevailed Sunday as expected. It was the oldest team in the sport, the Wood Brothers.
The win “hasn’t really sunk in yet,” said team co-owner Eddie Wood. “You begin to think you’ll never get back, but you keep trying.”