The last time a driver won his first ever attempt at the Daytona 500 was in 1959 when Lee Petty took the victory in the first ever race. That all changed on Sunday, when 20-year-old rookie Trevor Bayne piloted the famous Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford to his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.
Pulling off one of the greatest upsets in recent history, Bayne was able to hold off a strong charge by Carl Edwards and David Gilliland in only his second career Sprint Cup Series race.
“I got to the white flag, and I’m like, ‘At least we can say I lead at the white flag,’” Bayne said with a smile. “We get to Turn 4 and we were still leading the band. ‘Man, somebody’s going to pass us,’ you know, what’s going to happen here. Then nobody ever did.”
Screaming over the radio as he crossed the finish line, Bayne said emotionally, “Am I dreaming right now? God is so good, he is so good to us. I don’t even know where to go.”
Without sponsorship money at the end of last season, Bayne was forced to leave Diamond Waltrip Racing in the Nationwide Series and found a home at the Wood Brothers. Running only a limited schedule in 2011, their relationship has gotten off to the best possible start.
“I keep thinking I am dreaming, I really do,” Bayne said in Victory Lane. “We said a prayer before the race and we prayed a lot and this shows you how powerful God is. I am so thankful for the job that these guys did on this car. It is unbelievable. Our first 500, are you kidding me? To win our first one? Our second ever Cup race? I can’t thank the guys that worked with me enough. There were 10-15 different drivers that helped us get across that line.”
This was the 98th victory for the Wood Brothers and their first since 2001. The last time the Wood Brothers visited Victory Lane at Daytona was the famous duel between Richard Petty and David Pearson in the 1976 500 – 15 years before Bayne was even born.
“You know, sometimes you wonder if rookies are capable of winning you know?,” said Leonard Wood. “Today I told him that he had already proved to me that he could win and then he goes out and does it. Awesome job. This is one of the greatest wins we have ever had. I have no doubts about this kid now. What an unbelievable day for him and for us.”
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” co-owner Eddie Wood said. “We’ve struggled so much in the past couple years just to make the Daytona 500 much less win it. It’s just so special. There are so many people responsible for this that it’s just unbelievable we’re sitting here.”
In order to secure the victory, Bayne had to hold off the hard-charging two-car tandem of Carl Edwards and David Gilliland. Able to surpass Bayne’s drafting partner Bobby Labonte, Edwards and Gilliland secured the second and third-place spots – giving Ford a clean sweep of the top-3.
“I think that I can tell you guys that second-place in the Daytona 500 feels way worse than any other position I’ve ever finished in the Daytona 500,” Edwards said. “But that is made better by listening to Trevor and how excited he is. He is really a nice young man, a great guy to represent this sport with this win.”
Seemingly coming out of nowhere, Gilliland was able to score a huge win for Front Row Motorsports and earn his best finish since a second at Infineon in 2008.
“I told a bunch of the people you can look for Front Row Motorsports to be the most improved team from last year,” Gilliland said. “We stepped up our motor program to run the FR9 motor. Bob Jenkins (owner) bought a bunch of motors from (Richard Petty Motorsports). It’s taken us ten steps ahead on the competition side. I’m proud to have weathered the storm last year and now have a top-3 finish at Daytona for not only myself, but Bob Jenkins. He does this deal out of his pockets. To come and do that and be here with the success is something to be proud of.”
While Bayne was celebrating, fellow Ford driver and Bayne’s drafting partner for much of the day David Ragan was left thinking what could have been. Leading the race under the first Green-White-Checkered attempt, NASCAR black-flagged the No. 6 car for changing lanes prior to the start-finish line. With the field slowed for the 16th and final caution of the day, Ragan was forced to come down pit road to serve his penalty as his chances at victory slipped away.
“I know what the rules are,” Ragan said. “I felt like the leader had the start of the race. I felt like we fired and I started to move down right before the start-finish line, but I don’t think I crossed that invisible line that separates the top and the bottom. I also haven’t seen the replay, but to win these Cup races you can’t make any mistakes and the mistake I made hurt us, but our UPS team did a great job.”
As Ragan hit pit road to serve his penalty, Bayne was left without a drafting partner and began contemplating who he could work with in the final run to the checkers. Talking with spotter Chip Ross and crew chief Donnie Wingo, Bayne was ready to let Tony Stewart drop ahead of him on the GWC restart. Then came a push from behind in the form of Bobby Labonte.
“I was going to brake, let Tony Stewart get down,” Bayne said. “All of a sudden here comes the 47 car pushing away. Bobby Labonte, he did an awesome job. That was the best restart we had all weekend.”
“I hooked up with the 21 right here before we ever got to the start-finish line and pushed passed the white flag, and the guys back in the back were jockeying around,” Labonte said. “Obviously, I saw them coming and I went into (turn) three and I was just probably a quarter of a car length up too high, but I think of the 99 (Carl Edwards) and he might have went to the outside of us. He (Carl Edwards) was going so fast. He had a run on us. Congratulations to Trevor and the Wood Brothers — that’s awesome for those guys. We came home with a top-4 with our Kroger USO Toyota Camry so that was good. It was a little wild out there today.”
With so many unknowns headed into Sunday’s race, few expected the type of competition seen in the early laps. Drew Blickensderfer, crew chief for David Ragan, said on Saturday he expected a calm first 160 laps before all heck broke loose in the final 40. Yet from the drop of the green flag, the action was hot and heavy nearly every lap.
The cautions came early and they came often. When it was all said and done, the yellow flag flew 16 times for 60 of the 208 laps – a new track record. Other track records broken Sunday included 74 lead changes and 22 different drivers.
“That was like 520 miles of sheer terror out there,” Edwards said after the race. “It was just wild. The only reason we didn’t wreck more often is because of how good the drivers are and I felt like how much patience everyone used and discretion with their maneuvering and things like that. I felt like everyone did a really good job.
“If that were a lesser group of drivers out there on the racetrack, this would have been really, really bad,” he added. “The circumstance we were all put in, it made it very, very easy to wreck. Which is OK, by the way. That’s all right. That’s the way it was.”
The biggest incident of the day happened on Lap 29 when Michael Waltrip turned teammate David Reutimann as they ran in tandem mid-pack. When the No. 00 Toyota spun in Turn 4, the rest of the field scurried to avoid contact. In all 14 cars were involved, including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and underdog Brian Keselowski.
“Back there you could actually just use the draft, you didn’t need a partner,” Gordon said from the garage. “I was watching these guys in front of me like bumper cars. Bumping off of one another, three deep, four deep and three and four wide. Unfortunately we got caught up in it. I saw the 00 turned and I was doing everything I could to avoid it and we got caught up in it.”
In addition to wrecks, a number of front-runners were eliminated by engine woes as the two-car tandem seemed to be too much to handle. Most affected by the engine issues were the Earnhardt Childress Racing motors under the hoods of Richard Childress Racing’s Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton.
Coming into the day among the favorites, Harvick’s motor let go on Lap 24, while Burton’s day ended less than 70 laps later.
“We had just a 10–15 more degree oil temp than what we had been (running),” Harvick said. “I pulled out from behind the No. 17 (Matt Kenseth) when I felt like I got to the point where I needed to pull out, and the bottom fell out of it.”
“We are asking a lot out of the engines here for sure,” Burton later said. “These are tough situations. To run at all, you got to run them 240 (degrees) or so and that may be a little more than we need to be running. We thought we were well within our limits, but maybe not.”
Defending race winner Jamie McMurray, also with an ECR engine under the hood, began to lose power in the closing laps.
With the Daytona 500 now in the books, the 2011 season is officially underway. Since Bayne is ineligible to score driver points – he declared for the Nationwide Series title– Carl Edwards will head to Phoenix next week as the points leader.
“I think we’ve got a lot of positive things going on, a lot of ’em,” Edwards said. “Our performances have been good. We got a win, a win and a second (Note: Those two wins were the final two races of 2010 at Phoenix and Homestead). That’s a pretty good streak to be on. You never know what’s going to happen, but a couple tracks coming up are really good for us. I feel really good about it. I think Ford’s in a great spot.”