Commentary

Trevor Bayne NASCAR's next big star?

Updated: February 23, 2011, 12:24 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Late Sunday night, sometime between winning the Daytona 500, playing a game of H-O-R-S-E and riding a skateboard in the infield of NASCAR's most famous track, Trevor Bayne pulled out a piece of paper and wrote: "What do I need to do to not let the mountains get too high, but just stay focused?"

Below that, the youngest driver ever to win the sport's biggest race wrote, "What do I need to pray for?"

Stephanie Bayne found the note on the counter in her son's motor coach early Monday morning before going to Daytona USA to start the beginning of a whirlwind day for the boy she brought into this world 20 years and a two days earlier.

"What an amazing question after a win like that," she said proudly.

Amazing, and unbelievably mature.

If you knew Bayne before he stunned the NASCAR world with his dramatic and totally unexpected victory at Daytona International Speedway, you wouldn't be surprised. If you don't know him, it's time you do.

He may be the sport's next big star.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Bayne and Carl Edwards
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images/NASCARDrivers Trevor Bayne idolized growing up -- Carl Edwards included -- congratulated the 20-year-old in Victory Lane at Daytona.

The real deal, as team owner Eddie Wood calls him.

But were it not for a strange twist of fate and a huge amount of faith, Bayne may never have been in position to take the legendary Wood Brothers back to Victory Lane and become an overnight household name.

Let's backtrack. Bayne left the comfort of his parents' home in Knoxville, Tenn., at an age (15) when most kids are just thinking about getting their learner's permit, and he moved alone to Mooresville, N.C., as part of his master plan to become a Sprint Cup driver.

It's not a move a lot of parents would make, but one Stephanie and Rocky felt was best for their son's racing future.

"I spent a lot of time going back and forth [between Knoxville and Mooresville]," said Rocky, who at the time owned a race team in the Mooresville area some 235 miles away. "But there were a lot of times he did spend time alone, and it was hard.

"But he was very responsible."

And there were plenty of people helping out.

"I didn't have my driver's license yet," Trevor said with a laugh. "So my crew chief would actually come pick me up and take me to the shop and then drop me off at night."

But a few not-so-funny things happened along the way to stardom. Two weeks before Dale Earnhardt Inc. signed Bayne as a developmental driver in 2007, Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he was leaving for Hendrick Motorsports the following season.

After a 2008 season that saw Bayne earn six top-5s, two poles and a win in NASCAR's Camping World East series, the sponsorship and money was gone -- and so was the ride.

Then came a one-off Nationwide Series ride in the 2009 spring race at Bristol in a car that Bayne's father put together with the help of laid-off DEI employees and friends. Bayne qualified 26th and finished 23rd.

That led to a three-year Nationwide deal with Diamond-Waltrip Racing. But a lack of funding late in 2010 kept owner Michael Waltrip from acting on an option to guarantee anything for the following season and Bayne was left searching again.

A few days after parting with DWR in late September, Bayne was in a Roush Fenway Racing Nationwide car that he drove the rest of the season without financial compensation from team owner Jack Roush.

The payoff came when Roush convinced the Wood Brothers to let Bayne make his Sprint Cup debut at Texas, replacing 1988 champion Bill Elliott. Bayne didn't disappoint, finishing 17th and having the best passed-to-being-passed ratio in the field.

That led the Wood Brothers to sign Bayne for 17 Cup races this season while he drives a full Nationwide season for Roush.

Starting to get the picture? Had the stars not aligned, had things worked out as planned at DEI or DWR, Bayne's amazing Sunday may never have occurred.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Bayne
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesTrevor Bayne smoked the Goodyears after putting the famed Wood Brothers Racing Ford back in Victory Lane.

"Things don't happen like this to people," Rocky said. "For everything to align like it did, God had his hand in it. I know Trevor believes that."

Bayne does believe. Behind that boyish Hollywood smile that should make sponsors and young girls drool is a God-fearing kid who says a prayer before meals and doesn't hesitate to give thanks in triumph or failure.

As Carl Edwards said after finishing second on Sunday, "I think the world is going to like him a lot."

What's not to like, particularly if you're NASCAR trying to capture that elusive 18-34 demographic? Bayne is a daredevil who likes to snowboard, skateboard and jump from the staircase in his Lake Norman condominium onto the couch -- at least until he broke the furniture's legs, which he welded back on himself.

He's a self-taught guitar player who loves the Pittsburgh Steelers and eats primarily fast food. He drove his pickup truck from Charlotte to Daytona while most drivers were on private jets, and before Sunday he spent countless hours trying to build a social media following on Twitter.

"[I] was at 6,000 fans before this week," Bayne said. "Now it's at 21,000 overnight. I told everybody, 'Man, all I had to do was win the 500? I could have done that a long time ago if I would have known that's how I had to get followers.'"

Bayne's following actually is over 27,000 and growing, but who's counting?

And who wouldn't want to follow him when you read fresh tweets like this?

• "Just saw a guy with a gnarly afro in the gas station. … Now I'm wishin I lived in the disco days."

• "My cheeks are already hurtin from smiling so much!! 3 days of media here we come!!!"

• "Say what! I'm blown away at how amazing God's plan is! 500 winner. Can't believe it!"

Bayne isn't the hard-drinking, womanizing rebel one NASCAR official recently reminded us the sport was born on and needed to get back to. But he is a breath of fresh air the sport desperately needs.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that on the day NASCAR marked the 10th anniversary of the death of its fallen hero, Dale Earnhardt, this totally unexpected new hero emerged.

Maybe hero is a bit strong. Expectations have killed many young stars before their careers got off the ground. But Bayne knows that, which is another reason to believe he'll survive where others have been swallowed up.

"One thing I haven't really talked about is keeping our expectations realistic here," Bayne said as compliment after compliment was tossed at him during Monday's Champion Breakfast at Daytona USA. "We won this race and that sets the bar high, but if we would have finished 15th we would have been happy.

"If we … go to Phoenix and [don't] win, and finish top 15, we still have to remember to be excited about that because we're still learning. A lot of new pieces have come together, so I think we've got to keep that realistic and just race right now."

That's all Bayne really wants to do -- like Dale Earnhardt and others who became great before him. It's why Bayne was willing to forego the high school experience, get his degree online and live alone in North Carolina, away from family and friends.

It's why Wood Brothers Racing truly believes he can be "one of the great ones."

Maybe there is something to this thing called fate. How else do you explain that the kid who grew up idolizing Jeff Gordon -- Bayne had posters of the four-time champion all over his bedroom wall and once posed for a picture with Gordon on pit road at Bristol as a 6-year-old -- earned the respect of veterans when Gordon allowed him to be his drafting partner for most of the 150 miles of Thursday's qualifying race?

[I] was at 6,000 fans before this week. Now it's at 21,000 overnight. I told everybody, 'Man, all I had to do was win the 500? I could have done that a long time ago if I would have known that's how I had to get followers.'

-- Trevor Bayne talking about his exploding Twitter account

How else do you explain that, in a No. 21 car mirroring the red-and-white paint scheme Spartanburg's David Pearson drove to the famous 1976 Daytona 500 victory over Richard Petty, a kid born in Spartanburg returned the car to Victory Lane?

How else do you explain all the other coincidences at DEI and DWR that put Bayne in the 21?

And like Pearson, arguably the best driver the sport has seen, Bayne has worked hard for everything he's earned.

"We never bought a ride," said Rocky, who owns a small service maintenance company in Knoxville. "It was all based on talent and his ability to drive a race car."

If all this was not the result of fate, then surely it's faith.

"I remember one night he came home," Stephanie recalled of a conversation with her son when he was 13 or 14. "He said, 'Mom, today I heard a sermon. … Today I realized I'm not in control of my life. God is in control.'

"Not long ago he said, 'You know, when you expect something, that's when you can become disappointed. So I think it's not about laying out expectations, but just being realistic and striving for goals but not expecting anything."

Yes, there will be steep mountains for Bayne to climb going forward, but you get the feeling he will stay focused. He isn't rushing to switch from running for the Nationwide title to the Cup title, even though his driving style may be better fitted for Cup, as we saw with five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

"They drive more like a short-track car, and he's a great short-track driver," Rocky said. "I wouldn't count him out of winning another [Cup] race."

Those who know Bayne wouldn't count him out of anything.

"I had a meeting earlier this week and we were talking about what is the goal of Trevor Bayne as a brand, as a person," Bayne said. "It started out to be the best race car driver, but that's changed over time. It's not to be the best race car driver, to be the most marketable or to be the best at anything.

"It's just whatever it's gonna take to build that platform. It seems to be going pretty good so far, so we'll try to stay on that path."

If you don't know Bayne, you really should. He says he's just a "normal kid," and he is.

He also may be the sport's next big star.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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