By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2011; 12:14 AM
DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. - A day after celebrating his 20th birthday, Trevor Bayne delivered a special present to one of NASCAR's oldest teams.
Bayne, making only his second Sprint Cup start and ineligible to earn points on stock-car racing's top circuit, became the youngest winner in Daytona 500 history Sunday, holding off a hard-charging Carl Edwards to cap a wild race that set records for lead changes and cautions and ended in NASCAR's version of double overtime.
"If I tried to put it into words, I wouldn't be doing it any justice," the fresh-faced rookie said, grinning from ear to ear. "They gave me a rocket ship that definitely did me a lot of justice today. Anybody I hooked up with, it was headed to the front. To get this win . . . in our second-ever race, that's setting the standard."
Bayne's victory also put the once legendary Wood Brothers Racing back in Victory Lane. A team that fielded cars for David Pearson and Cale Yarborough scored its fifth victory in the Daytona 500 but first since 1976, when Pearson was behind the wheel. The red and white paint scheme on Bayne's No. 21 Ford, in fact, paid homage to Pearson's famous car.
"We've struggled so much the past couple of years just to make the Daytona 500, much less win it," co-owner Eddie Wood said. "To be fender-to-fender with all these guys, [Bayne] has got the composure and savvy of a veteran. And now he's a Daytona 500 winner."
It was Wood Brothers' first win anywhere in 10 years.
But before Bayne secured his spot in history and helped Wood Brothers recapture some of its past glory, the Knoxville, Tenn., native had to hold off Edwards exiting Turn 4 on the second "green-white-checker" restart after multiple wrecks in the closing laps. Edwards attempted to slingshot past the rookie with the help of a push from David Gilliland, but he was unable to catch Bayne.
"The last straightaway I raced defensively," Bayne said. "I saw Carl Edwards coming up. I pulled down to get a push from him and it worked out perfect."
Edwards added: "Trevor did a great job blocking the bottom. That car was a rocket."
At the end of a thrilling afternoon dominated by two-car "tandem drafts," it was less about racing than it was about surviving. There were 74 lead changes among 22 drivers and 16 cautions, all track records.
Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon ended up in the garage for repairs after a 14-car wreck on Lap 29 that confirmed everyone's fears about the tandem draft. It's the fastest way around the glass-smooth, repaved, 2.5 mile superspeedway. But the potential for disaster remained ever present.
David Reutimann triggered the chain reaction after he was spun by Michael Waltrip as the two drafted nose-to-tail.
"It's a product of this kind of racing," said Reutimann, who said he should have warned Waltrip over the radio that he was about to hit the brakes.
Gordon added: "I totally get the two-car drafting. But what I don't understand is why guys are doing it three-wide, three-deep running for 28th. I was like, 'What are they doing?' "
The tandem draft presented another issue: engine durability. The warmest day of the week coupled with the lack of cool air hitting the radiator of the "pushing" car in the draft led to a pair of high-profile blowups. Richard Childress Racing drivers Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton both suffered engine failures, ending their days.
"We are asking a lot out of the engines here, for sure," said Burton, who won one of the qualifying races on Thursday. "We thought we were well within our limits, but maybe not."
On the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death here at Daytona International Speedway, fans stood and held up three fingers to salute him on Lap 3. Then his son nearly honored his father in the best way imaginable. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led three times for nine laps and was in position late, but, like so many others, got caught up in a wreck and hit the wall after the first green-white-checker restart.
With many of NASCAR's best drivers out of contention, Bayne ended up with the opportunity of his young career.
And, perhaps not fully aware of what was at stake, he seized it.
"This is so crazy," he said. "I almost feel undeserving because there's guys like [crew chief Donnie Wingo], and all these guys out here racing against us that have been trying to do this for so long."
Then, after looking across the dais at co-owners Eddie and Len Wood, Bayne added, "But there's nobody that deserves it more than the guys sitting up here."
Bayne had planned to drive for Roush Fenway Racing full-time on the second tier Nationwide Series this season, while getting some seat time in the Sprint Cup series with Wood Brothers in 17 races. Bayne is not eligible to race for the Cup championship because he's currently committed to the Nationwide Series.
His upset Sunday, though, could force him to reconsider all of that, particularly if it attracts a primary sponsor. He also earned nearly $1.5 million for the win that could help Wood Brothers pay the bills for a while.
"Whatever plays out," Bayne said, "that's what was supposed to happen. We'll just keep running with it."