DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — 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."
Just one day after celebrating his 20th birthday and leaving his teenage years behind, the sport’s biggest race was captured by an aw-shucks Tennessean who shaves once a week and considers "Rugrats" his favorite TV show.
The rookie had been great throughout Speedweeks, even proving his mettle by pushing four-time champion Jeff Gordon for most of a qualifying race.
With the win Bayne breaks Gordon’s mark as the youngest winner in Daytona 500 history. Gordon was 26 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 last 20 years for Wood Brothers, which hasn’t run a full Sprint Cup season since 2006.
And there were no plans to do so with Bayne, who drove in the Daytona 500 on a loaner from Roush-Fenway Racing. Bayne came onto the NASCAR scene in late 2009 with Michael Waltrip Racing but bolted late last year when the team couldn’t promise a sponsor for this season.
He hooked up with Roush and planned 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 Wood Brothers for 17 races. It wouldn’t be for points, and he wasn’t eligible to run for rookie of the year.
But the stunning Daytona 500 win might change everybody’s plans.
Bayne could potentially retract his decision to run for the Nationwide title, and the fat Daytona 500 payday could provide the funding the Woods need to become competitive again.
Sunday’s race had a record 74 lead changes among 22 drivers, and a record 16 cautions that wiped out many of the leaders, including Earnhardt Jr. on the first attempt at NASCAR’s version of overtime. It put Bayne out front with a slew of unusual suspects.
David Ragan, winless in 147 career starts, was actually leading the field on NASCAR’s first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish. But he was flagged for changing lanes before the starting line, then an accident that collected Earnhardt in the middle of the pack brought out the caution, and Bayne inherited the lead.
But he had two-time series champion Tony Stewart, now winless in 13 career Daytona 500s, lurking behind with veterans Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch, who had collected two previous wins over Speedweeks. All were chomping at the bit for their first Daytona 500 title, but Bayne never blinked, holding his gas pedal down wide open as he staved off every challenge over the two-lap final shootout.
"I’ve never been to a racetrack with this many people!" he yelled in Victory Lane.
Edwards wound up second in a Ford and was followed by David Gilliland, Labonte and Busch.
Juan Pablo Montoya was sixth, Regan Smith seventh, and Kyle Busch, Paul Menard and Martin rounded out the top 10.
Earnhardt Jr. wound up 24th. It was a rough start to the season for Hendrick Motorsports as three of the team’s four cars, including five-time defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, were involved in an early 14-car wreck.
Gordon, who started on the front row, sustained damage in the melee and questioned the aggressiveness of his fellow drivers in the dicey two-car tandem racing, especially so early in the race.
"What I don’t quite understand is why guys are doing it three-wide, three-deep running for 28th," he said.