2011 never seemed so long ago.
Back then, Tony Stewart was the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. Jeff Burton and Mark Martin were still active drivers. Trevor Bayne – a rookie! – was the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, bringing the Wood Brothers’ famed No. 21 back to Victory Lane for the first time in a decade.
Most of those things don’t feel particularly distant; Burton and Martin are only a few years removed from competition, while Stewart’s only more recently hit hard times preceding his upcoming retirement. Bayne’s win? A whole other story, and it’s easy to say why: The 20-year-old kid who emerged victorious on one of racing’s biggest stages that February day hasn’t been seen much since. Bayne has entered races, sure, but no more is he rising prospect Trevor Bayne, whose was very suddenly ushered in as one of NASCAR’s next big things, earning a half-season schedule and seeming poised to take over an elite Cup ride in the near future.
Nowadays? Call him 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, sure, but there’s little else to say.
Not that it was likely sane to expect, say, a Cup title from the Tennessee native by this point, even if he had secured a full-time ride immediately following his Daytona win. It’s been a steep learning curve for Bayne, who finally came into a full schedule in the Xfinity Series in 2013 and 2014 after two years of missed races here and there. He continued that part-time Wood Brothers jaunt but only managed two more top 10s after his victory. His NXS results were admirable but never impressive, finishing no higher than sixth in points with two series wins overall.
But 2015 was it, right? The full-time Cup ride with a team – and number – synonymous with victory. Bayne was going Cup racing at long last, and the future seemed bright. Well, at least brighter than it was.
36 races. Two top 10s. An average finish of 25.8. 29th in points.
OK, but it’s important to be completely open here: Roush Fenway Racing was a bit of a mess on the Cup level in 2015. Not one of its three teams made the 16-car Chase, and the organization only managed four top fives all year (but more on that, undoubtedly, in someone else’s assessment of those drivers’ ho-hum seasons). Could any driver on Jack Roush’s payroll have excelled this year? It’s highly suspect, unless you were one of his NXS drivers – and even then, that varied wildly from championship to… hey, Trevor-Bayne-Daytona-500-esque, right?
But at least Greg Biffle was part of the conversation here and there (and might have stolen a win at Talladega Superspeedway in the fall if it weren’t for one of those meddling cautions). Instead, Bayne began his maiden Cup season by finishing no better than 18th for the first 14 races. A pair of ninth-place results permeated his mid-season at Michigan and Daytona, but afterward he was back to his usual form, sputtering to the finish line with three finishes of 30th or worse in the final four races.
Operative, perhaps, is that this was Bayne’s first full-time season, having never driven the full 36-race balance in Sprint Cup. But is that a viable excuse? After all, before 2015 Bayne had driven 58 Cup races over five seasons and at a majority of the tracks on the schedule. We’re not talking a rookie here, someone who’d either never raced on most of the circuits or had only done so in lower NASCAR series. This is a driver who had, in some instances, multiple races under his belt in a Cup stock car, sometimes dating back as far as 2010.
That’s not to say Bayne’s 2015 was a terrible year, but it’s not simple to locate the positives. It seemed as though he and crew chief Bob Osbourne never found their rhythm – and again, this is curious, since Osborne has 18 wins under his belt atop the pit box, arguably an important piece of the puzzle granting Carl Edwards racing prominence. He led zero laps all season, not even a random one-off at a superspeedway as many drivers are wont to do. He only managed 13 finishes on the lead lap and was about mid-pack in overall laps run at 21st with 9,000 of 10,425 (95%).
If there’s any light at the end of the tunnel, it’s that there’s still some distance left between Bayne and said end of tunnel at all. In some sports, such an underwhelming result for a top-tier team might result in immediate free agency or trading, but Bayne has strength in tenure, with a three-year deal expiring in 2017. There wasn’t a sense of urgency because there didn’t need to be; even if an early exit clause exists in the contract, it’s doubtful it’d be enacted after just one admittedly subpar season. At the worst, Bayne’s looking at two seasons – but probably three, as per the contract – and that kind of security can be intoxicating, or at least soothing as all get out.
So maybe 2015 was the get-comfy year. Perhaps it was the point where Bayne gains some (or more) familiarity with Roush Cup cars before mounting an all-out assault on the top 10 (or, again, more) in 2016.
Until then, well, at least we’ll always have 2011.