Commentary

Is Trevor Bayne too nice for NASCAR?

Originally Published: February 24, 2011
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

I'm having second thoughts about Trevor Bayne.

If he sticks as a star, I just can't imagine him …

Throwing a punch.

Cussing on live TV.

Aiming a bumper with malice.

Snarling at a NASCAR official.

Beating on another driver's door panels just for the hell of it.

Ridiculing a reporter.

Flipping anybody off.

Ripping NASCAR on his radio.

Ripping NASCAR on TV.

Getting booed.

Ripping another driver on his radio.

Ripping another driver on TV.

Going nose-to-nose with another driver.

Pushing the envelope on "boys, have at it."

Or in any way violating Section 12 of the rulebook, which covers "actions detrimental to stock car racing."

[+] EnlargeTrevor Bayne
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images for Infineon RacewayDaytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne went from no-name to fan fave in a blink of an eye.

From what we've seen and heard from him since he won the Daytona 500, I just don't see that Bayne has any action detrimental to stock car racing in him.

So where do we go from here, now that we've put Dale Earnhardt to rest at last and launched Trevor Bayne?

Could we be hurtling headlong toward the complete sanitization of NASCAR? Toward G ratings from now on?

And is that what the public really wants?

I'm just asking.

A monumental crossroads for NASCAR and its surrounding society occurred this past week at Daytona.

We let go of Earnhardt with every imaginable documentary, column, story, remembrance and fan salute on the 10th anniversary of his death.

Then, as suddenly as the postrace fireworks over the backstretch, we exploded into celebration of the youngest (20) -- and by all indications the nicest -- winner of the Daytona 500 so far.

Now that the fireworks are subsiding, I wonder …

The movement to transform the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing into the National Association for Squeaky-Clean Auto Racing has been afoot for a quarter-century or so.

Earnhardt embodied the resistance to that. And for a decade, his memory kept up that resistance among hard-core fans, the common people who loved him because he was one of them.

He kept things rough and fueled the public legions against the invasion of polish and politeness led by the likes of Jeff Gordon.

The essence of Earnhardt was that he refused to be pushed around -- on the track, by corporate handlers or by NASCAR itself. He did what he pleased, said what he thought.

"They loved him because he told authority to shove it," a friend of mine, who has a better feel for the pulse of NASCAR fans than anyone else I know, said the other day. "He had an instinct for what the common man related to, and it resonated."

Millions lived vicariously through him. The common folk are tough because they have to be. They get angry because they deserve to be. They dream because dreams are all they have … and, hey, if ol' Dale with his ninth-grade education could come out of a front-end alignment shop to be somebody, then maybe there's hope for them, too.

Trevor Bayne
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images/Infineon RacewayTrevor Bayne autographs a fan's "Trevor will you Marry Me?" sign during a Tuesday stop at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco.

Think about this: Since Earnhardt, virtually every NASCAR star has had a father to thank for bringing him along. Bayne follows that pattern. Earnhardt was the last to come up solely by his own bootstraps.

As they've been brought up since age 5 in go-karts, they've been trained in public relations since kindergarten.

Even when Carl Edwards has a flare-up and launches or tussles with somebody, he always knows how to say just the right thing afterward. Even Tony Stewart, now that he's an owner and deals directly with corporate sponsors, is chronically polite to a fault.

NASCAR publicists have them all trained now. They're all good at it. But Bayne appears impeccable.

Is that what the public really wants?

Nothing wrong with nice guys, mind you. Except maybe where the NASCAR public is concerned.

Much of NASCAR Nation is put off by Jimmie Johnson, saying he is "vanilla" -- maybe another term for too nice a guy, too soft-spoken.

Now here's Bayne, even nicer.

Johnson, attempting to roughen up his persona a bit in recent seasons, has added a little profanity to his answers to the media. I can't see Bayne ever doing that.

And if the detractors have let Johnson's too-pleasant personality distort their view of his driving talent (which, seen objectively, is enormous), will they let Bayne's pure driving ability shine through untarnished over the long haul?

Bayne's personality might just be effervescent enough to overcome all that. He is forceful with his joy and innocence.

And maybe, if he sticks as a star, his era will still be spiced by Brad Keselowski's rough-shod style and talk, Kyle Busch's temperament, Edwards' launching of offenders …

Or maybe I'm all wrong, totally out of touch. Maybe a G rating is the way of the future in NASCAR -- impeccably polite young men driving cars so safe it's almost as if they were playing video games, then getting out and saying all positive, all cheerful things.

Maybe NASCAR fans are all fed up with "actions detrimental to stock car racing."

But that would be a far different NASCAR Nation from the one I've known.

Or the one Earnhardt knew so well.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.

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