*2011 Ride:* No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford
*2011 Sponsors:* Motorcraft / Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center, Good Sam Club (one race)
*2011 Owners:* Wood Brothers
*2011 Crew Chief:* Donnie Wingo
*Stats:* 17 Starts, 1 Win, 1 Top 5, 1 Top 10, 3 DNFs, $2,888,963 in earnings. Bayne was ineligible to score points in Sprint Cup through his choice to pursue a Nationwide Series championship.
*Best Finish:* 1st – Daytona 500.
*Average Finish:* 25.8.
*High Point:* You get one guess at this one. Bayne’s fast Ford and his tandem-drafting skills made him the toast of Daytona Beach before the green flag for the 500 dropped. In the race, he lost veteran drafting partner Jeff Gordon early and eventually paired with fellow Ford man David Ragan. Bayne pushed Ragan to the front but, with a handful of laps remaining (you may have heard this story) Ragan eagerly changed lanes to realign with Bayne on a restart before the start-finish line. NASCAR black-flagged Ragan, handing the lead to Bayne who then held himself in position to take the victory down the stretch. Bayne staved off Carl Edwards, David Gilliland, and Bobby Labonte to win America’s biggest race, one day after turning 20, in just his second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start. As a result, the youngster became an instant hit in the NASCAR world, as people found themselves drawn to his humility and outspokenness about his Christian faith. Even more so, people loved that the underdog Wood Brothers, winless since Elliott Sadler’s March 2001 Bristol victory, and Bayne kicked the season off with a Cinderella story for the ages.
*Low Point:* The month of May. One of the weirdest stories in racing in awhile began when a spider bit Bayne during the Martinsville race weekend. This poison caused swelling, blurred vision, and fatigue; Bayne reportedly drove the April Texas Sprint Cup race one-handed, as his other arm’s elbow swelling got out of control. Jack Roush, who owns Bayne’s contract and put him in the Wood Brothers car, decided to pull Bayne out of his Roush Fenway No. 16 Nationwide Series car and the No. 21 Ford in the Cup Series until Bayne’s physical condition improved. This kept the young driver out of any kind of racecar from late April to early June, costing him a chance to race in his first career Sprint All-Star event (which the cash-strapped Wood Brothers skipped). Bayne then yielded the reins of the No. 21 to Nationwide Series teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished 11th in the Coca-Cola 600 for his Sprint Cup debut. In all, he missed four Nationwide Series races, losing a shot at the championship he chose over running for Cup points. Rumors swirled about his condition, which Roush Fenway Racing stayed ambiguously mum about through the ordeal, and at one point it was feared the season was in jeopardy. Luckily, Bayne did return to racing in June and is seemingly in good condition now; later in the year, he revealed doctors treated him based on a lyme disease diagnosis but no one is sure of the ultimate cause.
*Summary:* Bayne’s season began with a bang – Daytona 500 glory. After that, speculation began: Could that win put him in the Chase? Should Bayne switch his points to the Cup Series? Can he win Phoenix? Then, reality arrived – Bayne wrecked early in the February Phoenix race and finished 40th, crashing as he raced over his head in the back of the pack. The true expectations of Bayne in the No. 21 for a limited schedule were to get his feet wet in the Cup Series – to learn how to run a 500-mile race and keep his car in one piece. That took awhile, as bad luck and inexperience led to several wrecks and bad finishes early in his schedule. Jamie McMurray told me earlier this year that he even had words with the freshman after an on-track run-in with Bayne. But Bayne told me that despite his rookie stripe, he refused to be pushed around by other drivers on the track. As the season progressed, he finished where he was supposed to in the equipment he had in most races. The Wood Brothers had planned to run the No. 21 in only 12-15 events before Bayne’s Daytona win, but the extra purse money and some additional sponsorship from Good Sam Club got the team to the track 17 times.
Towards the end of the season, Bayne looked poised to finish well at Talladega, but Roush Fenway Racing ordered him to ditch Jeff Gordon in the draft and partner with RFR Chase contender Matt Kenseth. Bayne ended the day 15th. He finished 17th in both Texas races and 16th in the June Michigan race, while the other races saw the No. 21 run outside the top 20.
Bayne ran consistently in better equipment in the Nationwide Series, scoring his first career NNS win at Texas in November in a thrilling late-race pass of teammate Carl Edwards. Bayne notched five top 5s and 14 top 10s, appearing in 29 of 34 races and still managed to finish 11th in points. A longtime racing insider recently told me that Bayne, “Can flat drive a racecar.” Besides the Daytona 500 win, some of his results in 2011 would state otherwise, but folks should keep an eye peeled on both Bayne and friend/teammate Stenhouse Jr. for 2012.
*2012 Outlook:* The economy has wreaked havoc on Roush Fenway’s racing programs. Roush has shuttered David Ragan’s sponsorless No. 6 Cup ride and at least one Nationwide Series team (as two of the three 2011 teams had little to no sponsorship). Another Nationwide Series program may run a part-time schedule. RFR has said that either Bayne or Stenhouse, Jr. would run a limited schedule with the Wood Brothers in the Cup Series, with the other of the two likely to run a limited Cup schedule in either a Roush Fenway Ford or a Richard Petty Motorsports entry. The latter seems unlikely, as RFR is reportedly negotiating with Best Buy to move its dollars from the No. 43 of A.J. Allmendinger to Matt Kenseth’s blank quarterpanels on the No. 17. With RPM also negotiating with free agent Kurt Busch and money scarce, Bayne or Stenhouse Jr. at RPM is probably not going to happen. So expect Bayne in the No. 21 for the same schedule and maybe some races in a Ford somewhere for Stenhouse Jr.
As far as the Nationwide Series, sources tell me that Roush offered David Ragan the No. 60 ride before Ragan asked for his release. Expect Stenhouse to go and defend his crown in that car (probably the No. 6) next season and maybe Bayne to either run part-time for RFR in the NNS or full-time if the team finds funding. The economy is keeping Silly Season awful silly: you wouldn’t expect the defending Nationwide Series champ and defending Daytona 500 winner to have questions about their rides.
*Team Ranking*: 1st of 1. Bayne was the only dog at the Wood Brothers… so mark his as the top dog. If you look overall in the tightly-knit Ford camp, his age and big Daytona win increase his prominence, but don’t vault him ahead (yet) of proven drivers Marcos Ambrose, A.J. Allmendinger or any of the Roush Fenway guys. Nationwide Series champ Stenhouse Jr. and Bayne are neck and neck for the next available Ford rides in the Cup Series – but that depends on sponsorship.
*2011 Frontstretch.com Grade:* B-.
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