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Success finds NASCAR prodigy Trevor Bayne ahead of schedule

DAYTONA BEACH

What does the kid know about heartbreak? Forty-eight hours ago, he was still a teenager.

He drove down here in his Ford pickup truck with a wardrobe of T-shirts and an acoustic guitar for company. The night before the Daytona 500 — the night of his 20th birthday — he rode around the infield campsites in a golf cart and watched some of his buddies from back home compete in a wheelbarrow race. His face is smooth, his laugh is unrehearsed and his future is endless.

So how could Trevor Bayne possibly know the Daytona 500 is a race without mercy? How could he understand the frustrations of wealthy and accomplished men who wanted nothing more than to say they won the Great American Race?

Yet there he was, in the second start of his Sprint Cup career, leading the season opener with two laps remaining after a restart. Right behind him was a half-century's worth of torment. There was Kurt Busch, 0-for-10 in the Daytona 500. And Tony Stewart, 0-for-12 in the Daytona 500. And Bobby Labonte, 0-for-18 in the Daytona 500. And Mark Martin, 0-for-26 in the Daytona 500.

They dove low. They rode high. They chased him for 5 miles. And not one of them caught the kid from Knoxville, Tenn.

"I'm a little bit worried that one of them is going to come after me tonight. I'm going to have to sleep with one eye open," Bayne said. "That's why I said I felt a little undeserving."

When it was all over, when the rookie had to stop and ask directions to Victory Lane, the Daytona 500 had the youngest winner in history. And NASCAR officials had chills thinking about the possibilities of a fresh face propping up a flagging product.

For Bayne appears to be the real deal. A clean-cut kid who is neither shy nor vain. A racing prodigy who organized a Bible study group with a dozen older drivers in the Nationwide series last year.

He is the youngest driver in NASCAR, and he is racing for the sport's oldest team. The Wood Brothers may have fallen on hard times in the past decade, but they know talent when they see it. This is a team that has celebrated Daytona 500 victories with Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and A.J. Foyt. A team that has employed 20 of the names on NASCAR's list of its 50 greatest drivers.

"He reminds me of the great ones. He will be a great one," co-owner Eddie Wood said. "I told somebody the other day that I felt like he just might be the next big deal."

If that seems a bit premature, it fits with Bayne's profile. His grandfather drove stock cars around small tracks in South Carolina in the 1970s, and his father had Bayne on a mini motorcycle with training wheels when he was 3.

He graduated to go-karts by age 5 and was winning world championships before he was a teenager. Even before he was old enough for a driver's license, he was being mentored by Donnie Allison and was the Allison Legacy Race Series national champion at 15. Bayne took high school courses online and moved by himself to Charlotte, N.C., at 16 to be near NASCAR's epicenter.

It's not like the big boys around the sport were unaware of Bayne. He signed a deal with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s development team when he was 17 and with Michael Waltrip's outfit when he was 18. But both cut him loose because of hard economic times. He got a Nationwide series ride with Roush Fenway Racing late last season, then signed with the Wood Brothers for a limited Sprint Cup schedule.

"It's crazy," Bayne said. "It's happened so fast."

To say this was the biggest upset in Daytona 500 history is not much of a stretch. A handful of other drivers have won their first NASCAR race in the 500, but none were nearly as inexperienced as Bayne. Before Sunday, the youngest 500 winner was Jeff Gordon in 1997. And, at the time, Gordon was more than 5 1/2 years older than Bayne is today.

Still, it is probably wishful thinking to assume Bayne will take NASCAR by storm in the coming months. As good as the No. 21 looked during Speedweeks, the Wood Brothers have not had competitive cars in recent seasons. And, as well as Bayne drove on Sunday, he had not even won a Nationwide series race in 50 career starts.

He is only scheduled to run 17 Cup races this season, but that will likely change if sponsors begin jumping on his bandwagon. And considering his fresh face and eager attitude, that seems a sure bet.

"I think the world is going to like him a lot. He'll do a really good job representing the sport," said Carl Edwards, who finished second. "He's got a ton of enthusiasm. He'll walk right up to you and just stick his hand out. He just seems like a really good guy."

Pearson was around before Sunday's race and spent a few minutes talking with Bayne. Later, when it was over, Richard Petty joined the Wood Brothers in Victory Lane. In between, Bayne talked to Darrell Waltrip on the radio.

All for a kid who watched this race in blue jeans last year.

"I never expected to be sitting here. I still don't think it's real," Bayne said. "Sorry if I'm bouncing around on questions and answers. I figure I can do whatever I want since it's just a dream anyways."

Success finds NASCAR prodigy Trevor Bayne ahead of schedule 02/20/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 20, 2011 11:41pm]
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