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Rookie Bayne races way into spotlight

Tue., Feb. 22, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Trevor Bayne celebrated his Daytona 500 victory by playing basketball with friends, then skateboarding on the infield of NASCAR’s most storied race track.

And why not? This is the youngest winner of the Great American Race.

Bayne seemed still in disbelief Monday of his Daytona 500 victory, which came a day after his 20th birthday and in just his second start in NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup Series.

Wide-eyed and laughing at the absurdity of his life-changing victory, Bayne was just going with the flow.

“It’s insane because we were kidding around, ‘Did you bring enough clothes to go if you win the race?’ ” Bayne said. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve got this. I’ve got two T-shirts.’ I thought it was a big joke, but here we are. This is so crazy.”

That’s how it seems to go in NASCAR’s biggest race of the season, which has a history of wild finishes and surprising winners. Sunday was no different, with a record 74 lead changes among 22 drivers, and a record 16 cautions that took many of the heavyweights out of contention.

Nobody in the closing laps expected Bayne, driving the famed No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford – which, by the way, hadn’t won a race since Bayne was only 10 years-old – to make it to Victory Lane in one of the most difficult Daytona 500s in memory.

Bayne has been racing since he was 5 with the backing of his father, Rocky, and knew by 12 he needed to move to North Carolina and hook on with a NASCAR team.

His break came with Dale Earnhardt Inc. when he was 15, and Bayne made the move – alone – to a condominium outside of Charlotte, N.C. Although Rocky spent several days a week with his son, Bayne was essentially navigating through life on his own, relying on team employees to give him rides to and from work because he was too young for a legal driver’s license.

With the victory, Bayne goes front and center before the public much faster than anyone had imagined and NASCAR will quickly find out if he’s enough to help Fox sustain overnight ratings for Sunday’s race that were up 13 percent over last year’s Daytona 500.

Following a lack of sponsorship last season, Bayne was snatched up by Roush-Fenway Racing, which committed to him full-time in NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide Series this season even though there’s no sponsorship money in place for Bayne.

The deal came with a promise of seat time in the Cup Series in a 17-race deal with the Woods.

The idea was for Bayne to just get experience. Because of the Daytona 500 win, he’s now facing serious career decisions.

New NASCAR rules this season made drivers pick just one series to collect points, and Bayne checked the box next to Nationwide. He can change his mind and make a run at the Cup title, but he would not receive retroactive points for the Daytona 500.

But Bayne has a victory – the first at any of NASCAR’s top three national divisions – and after NASCAR ruled Monday the win would count in Chase seeding, Bayne and his advisers had to consider his options.

He was leaning Monday toward not changing his mind.

“I’d love to run for a championship in either series, so whatever they say I’m good with it,” Bayne said. “But for now, I think we’re probably just sticking with what we planned.”

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