For Trevor Bayne, 2016 was a step in the right direction.
Without too much flair or attention, the 25-year-old showed some of the most significant year-to-year improvement in the Sprint Cup Series, earning his first top-5 finish since his 2011 Daytona 500 win and showing flashes of his potential, so strongly needed in Roush Fenway Racing’s current slump.
Those flashes, however, were not enough to make the Chase and did not sent the Knoxville, Tennessee native a return trip to Victory Lane.
In fact, the 2016 campaign took some time before true improvement started to show on the racetrack.
Reaching the five-year anniversary of his underdog triumph with the Wood Brothers at this year’s Daytona 500, Bayne mustered a 28th-place finish. The lackluster performance bled into the next five races, which saw a best finish of 17th and a 23rd-place spot in points despite a career-high qualifying effort of third at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
With the win-and-you’re-in Chase format back for a third time in 2016, Bayne and new crew chief Matt Puccia put their luck in the hands of the racing gods come Texas Motor Speedway in April. Staying out to take the lead late, their hope of stealing a win on fuel strategy came to a grinding halt when multiple crashes ended the long green-flag run.
Still, a 15th-place finish that day gave Bayne his best result since Bristol in August 2015.
Speaking of his home track, things would get even better when the series returned to the World’s Fastest Half-Mile the very next week.
After earning a fourth appearance in the final 12-driver round of qualifying, Bayne lined up 10th for the 500-lapper. Soon, he made his way into the top 10 before a few late restarts gave him the crucial top lane to make passes.
Restarting sixth with five laps to go, Bayne passed Kevin Harvick to earn a fifth-place finish, breaking a 99-race drought without a top 5.
“If there’s somewhere I could choose to run well, it’s Bristol,” Bayne said. “It’s my home track. I have a lot of fans here, and it just feels good to be in contention.”
Perhaps it only took a top 5 to turn things around for the No. 6 team. As the season flipped to summer, that notion proved true as Bayne enjoyed a run of four straight finishes inside the top 25, including two top 10s at Talladega – where he led for a career-high 22 laps – and Dover.
The momentum continued into All-Star week at Charlotte Motor Speedway when he and RFR teammates Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Greg Biffle were put to the test to race their ways into the All-Star Race through winning in the Sprint Showdown.
On the final restart of segment No. 1, Bayne pulled off a gutsy three-wide move off Turn 2 that gave him the advantage coming back to the stripe, where he edged Chase Elliott by 0.005 seconds to earn a spot in the All-Star Race.
“That was pretty cool,” he said. “Off Turn 2 there was a tiny hole and somehow our car got through it without getting beat up.”
With a finish of seventh in his first All-Star Race since 2012, it was the kind of solid weekend the team needed to move toward a hopeful Chase birth in a few short months.
Coming into 2016, consistency was a recurring issue for Bayne, who saw more finishes outside the top 30 than inside the top 20 in his first full-time Cup effort in 2015. With similar runs to start the 2016 season, the second half of the calendar is when he turned things around.
Indeed, the consistency continued through the summer, as Bayne grabbed 11 top-25 finishes in the next 12 races, including a season-best third at Daytona in July and a ninth at Watkins Glen in August.
Sitting 15th in the standings at one point, the realistic Chase picture, however, ended in September when a finish of 40th at Darlington decimated his chances of making the postseason.
Despite the dreadful result, you can’t doubt Bayne’s excitement for honoring Hall of Fame inductee and past RFR driver Mark Martin in the second running of the Darlington Throwback
— Trevor Bayne (@Tbayne6) April 27, 2016
Closing out the season, Bayne earned four straight top 20s from Dover to Talladega before finishing the season 22nd in points, seven spots higher than 2015.
The improvement didn’t just show there, as Bayne picked up a whopping seven spots in qualifying and six spots in average finish. In these days, those are hearty pickups for a team that is going through its worst performance issues to date.
Joining the boosted numbers for Bayne was a contract extension, which was announced prior to the Chase race at Texas, confirming his spot at RFR for the next three years.
With the team migrating to two cars next year, he will again join Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who also saw strong improvement in 2016, in what could be a breakout year for the Ford organization.
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