Bayne staying cool despite stardom
Two months ago Trevor Bayne shocked the sports world. Just one day beyond his 20th birthday, he won the most prestigious event on the American stock car racing slate. It was stunning, a refreshing storyline for a sport that desperately needed good news.
It went like this: No-name upstart fends off world's best racers to reestablish cornerstone family-owned team among the relevant.
Bayne's parents, Rocky and Stephanie, watched from the grandstands as he barreled off Turn 4 on the final lap as the leader. Rocky's penchant for unbridled support can be a bit much for the pit box at times, and, as any parent would, he was most certainly hollering that day.
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He and Stephanie high-fived fans all the way to the flag stand, where they would cross over the racetrack and embrace their oldest son in Victory Lane, checkered-flag in hand. It was an odd moment of chaotic clarity, when the sacrifices to get there were validated.
If you didn't know it was true, you'd be on the lookout for Rowdy Burns or Cal Naughton Jr. or Lugs Harvey to emerge from nowhere to crash the script. But Bayne isn't Cole Trickle or Ricky Bobby or Stroker Ace.
This story isn't about a character. This story is about character.
"He is very loyal," said Ricky Stenhouse, Bayne's close friend and Nationwide Series teammate at Roush Fenway Racing. "He'll do anything for you. No matter the time of day he'll be there. He's up-front and honest. Even since he won the Daytona 500, he's the same Trevor that I always hung out with. He hasn't changed any."
Maybe not his character. But no doubt, his life changed as quickly as his car raced that day.
Suddenly Bayne was everywhere. He was on SportsCenter and the "Ellen DeGeneres Show" and cell phones galore, including those of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow and Vice President Joe Biden. He was a bona fide heartthrob, the first driver in years to unite the teenyboppers.
"Let's just say it's like walking around with an older Justin Bieber," laughed Corey Wynn, Bayne's linebacker-sized publicist, right-hand man and, at times, bodyguard. "Trevor has fans of all ages. But in the 12-18 [age] female category it is very high. I thought we were going to get mobbed during the 500 media stop in San Francisco. The response has been surreal."
Before the 500, Wynn said, they could walk through the garage freely without being stopped. Bayne was a relative unknown with a handful of fans. He was an up-and-comer of moderate popularity. Not anymore.
"Now we have to leave for appearances at least 15 minutes early, because he gets mobbed by fans -- and he will not turn away any fan," Wynn said.
Following the victory, Wynn was forced to check Bayne into hotels under an assumed name. Fans would figure out where they were staying and post it on Twitter or Facebook. Bayne's schedule was wide open before the 500. It is now booked through July.
Despite Bieber-like fever, Bayne is the same kid he was on Feb. 19, rooted in a deep Christian faith and genuinely giddy about this opportunity. His post-Daytona experience has been a whirlwind, the vast majority of it resoundingly positive. The biggest problem isn't necessarily a problem. But it troubles him nonetheless.
He fears the prospect of disappointing someone.
"I'm the kind of person where I don't say no to anything. I'll do whatever anybody asks and I try to keep every person happy, whether it's a fan on the side of the road, a local newspaper or talking to Joe Biden on the phone," Bayne said. "I want everybody to have the same experience. That's what's been the hardest thing for me, balancing that; balancing keeping everyone happy and still doing everything, but still make sure I perform."
It's hasn't been easy. He is pulled in countless directions, which he knows is a blessing and appreciates. But that doesn't mean it's easy. He has leaned on five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson for guidance.
Johnson had Jeff Gordon to help him negotiate the madness, and Johnson pays that favor forward with today's young drivers. After Bayne won the 500, Johnson sought him out to give some advice, the most important of which was to stay organized.
"I actually just told him to drink a lot of beer," Johnson quipped. "No, seriously, I've known Trevor for a lot of years. He's just such a good kid. His values are in line. He's a competitor, but has a very good balance of things.
"The way he carries himself, character-wise, is impressive. At a young age he seems to know who he is. And on track, you can tell how hard he works to do the right things."
Johnson's youngest brother, Jessie, was Bayne's teammate in the Legends series at Charlotte Motor Speedway a few years back.
"I trip out about that," Johnson said. "He's in a Cup car and he and my brother were teammates. Weird. I had Jeff there to help me. Jeff knew what was out there. He didn't hold my hand, but he said, 'Hey, get organized. These are the high points to be aware of.' And we rolled on from there. So that's really what I've done for Trevor as well."
Bayne's victory not only catapulted him to stardom, it also gave downtrodden Wood Brothers Racing new life. In recent years, the once prominent Woods had scaled back to part-time participation. Times were tough financially, and eventually pride gave way to dollars and sense. That dynamic added an historic chapter to Bayne's storybook victory and invigorated many longtime fans who had become disenchanted.
"I've had so many people come to me and say, 'Now we have a reason to watch -- we love the Wood Brothers. We love you. We love everything about it,'" Bayne said. "So we're kind of capturing older fans that used to watch back in the day and kind of slipped away, and we're capturing the youth.
"You wouldn't expect it to fit, but it does. I grew up watching the sport and loving the history of the sport, and they needed a young driver to come in and give them a little shot in the arm. But one thing that's never changed about the Wood Brothers, whether they're relevant or winning races or at the back of people's minds running a part-time schedule, is how great that family is.
"I've not met one person that's had a bad thing to say about any of the Woods. That means a lot to me to be with a family like that. And not just the race team, either. The family."
Two weeks ago, Bayne participated in Wood Brothers Racing's fan day in Stuart, Va., the team's hometown. He was slated to sign autographs from 6-8 p.m., but the line was so long he didn't stop signing until well past midnight.
"The fans were so supportive before I ever won, so obviously it's cool to still have them," he said. "But now it's multiplied times 10. It's crazy to see how many people are cheering for us, or sitting there waiting on an autograph. I won't walk past one person. I will sign every single one. If I see a fan wanting an autograph, I'm going to stop."
And Johnson gets that.
"That's awesome," Johnson said when told. "You want to sign every autograph. But on race day that's not why I'm there. I'm there to win. Those are things you have to learn."
Another lesson Bayne has learned is why Kyle Busch gets so frustrated when he doesn't win at the Nationwide level. Sprint Cup competition, he said, raises your competitive drive and expectations. Nothing but excellence is good enough.
"I realize that last year I'd have been pumped to run top 10 in some of those races. It turns up your competitive wick a little bit, once you run Cup and battle with those guys, and then come back to Nationwide," he said. "If you're not running top-5 you're frustrated."
Bayne isn't sure what the future holds. He said he wants to run full-time in the Sprint Cup Series in 2012, and that, to date, few team owners have approached him about his future. But the season is young.
"I think everybody kind of knows I'm at Roush for a little bit, and at Wood Brothers for now," he said. "So I haven't had a bunch of people approach me yet. Hopefully we can run for the Nationwide championship. That would be the next thing I want to accomplish -- this year.
"Next year I want to be full time in Cup. I don't know how that looks yet, who I'll be with or what's available. But that would be my goal, to be full-time Cup and run the Nationwide again, like what [Brad] Keselowski's doing this year. I don't know. I'm happy where I'm at."
No matter what happens, he'll always have Feb. 20, 2011. He still can't wipe the grin off his face discussing it.
During Speedweeks in February, Bayne told Wynn he wanted to be special, not just another driver. God, he said, had given him a platform to help others. Wynn then told him he needed to be "epic" in 2011, and that became their motto.
"After he won the 500 he whispered to me, 'How's that for being epic?'" Wynn said. "Awesome kid."
"You wouldn't believe how many people call and say, 'Man! I was in tears watching that race,'" Bayne said. "And it's people I haven't even met. It's my best friends. It's my family. Everybody you talk to has that same response. That's really, really neat."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.