The planets aligned. Heck, the heavens stood still. And Trevor Bayne recaptured the magic of David Pearson in the Wood Brothers throwback No. 21 Ford, winning Sunday’s 53rd running of the Daytona 500.
On the second attempt at a green-white-checkered-flag finish at Daytona International Speedway, Bayne crossed the finish line .118 seconds ahead of Carl Edwards, returning the Wood Brothers to Victory Lane for the first time since 2001.
Bayne became the first driver to win the Daytona 500 in his first attempt since Lee Petty won the inaugural event in 1959. By winning in his second start in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, Bayne tied Jamie McMurray for quickest victory at the start of a career.
In a war of attrition that set track records for lead changes (74), number of different leaders (22) and number of cautions (16), David Gilliland finished third after pushing Edwards toward the front on the final two laps. Bobby Labonte was fourth in his first race for JTG/Daugherty Racing, and Kurt Busch, last Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout winner, ran fifth.
With three-time Cup champion Pearson in attendance for the start of the race as a member of the 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame class, Bayne gave Wood Brothers its 98th victory and their first at Daytona since Buddy Baker in the 1983 Firecracker 400. It was the Wood Brothers’ fifth Daytona 500 victory, the last by Pearson in 1976.
“I keep thinking I’m dreaming,” Bayne said in Victory Lane. “Our first 500—are you kidding me? To win our first one in our second-ever Cup race, I mean this is just incredible. Wow, this is unbelievable. How cool is it to see the Wood Brothers back in victory lane?
“It’s crazy to get my first win before a Nationwide win—I didn’t know how to get to victory lane.”
Bayne’s accomplishment was doubly remarkable, given that his car was wrecked in the last few hundred yards of Thursday’s second Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying race. He missed both practice sessions as crew chief Donnie Wingo and the Wood Brothers team repaired the car.
Edwards said the runner-up finish would haunt him for days, but he didn’t begrudge Bayne the victory.
“Look, right now this is going to be a long night for me,” Edwards said. “I’m going to go back to the motor home, I’m going to watch the replay, think about a hundred things I could have done, think about, man, what would it have been like to (win) the race?
“You know, as a competitor, in a way it really doesn’t matter who beats you. But as a person, as a friend of Trevor’s, it’s amazing to watch him have that success. I’ve only known him for a short time, but he’s what seems to be truly a good guy. I think a lot of people in the sport see that. Hopefully, a lot of the fans see that. So that’s good for the sport.
“I still would have liked to beat him — that’s for sure.”
Every time Daytona is paved, something out of the ordinary happens. In 1959, a year after the speedway was built, Lee Petty won the first Daytona 500 in a three-way photo finish. Daytona was repaved in 1978 before the first live flag-to-flag TV coverage of the Great American race in 1979.
That event ended with Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison wrecking each other in Turn 3 on the last lap, and with Yarborough and Bobby Allison fighting on the infield grass while Richard Petty came from nowhere to win the race.
Small wonder there was an electric buzz in the air when the field came to the green on Sunday. But who would have guessed this year’s 500 would get its youngest winner ever? Bayne turned 20 the day before the race.
The event was not quite 29 laps old when a wild melee in Turn 3, triggered by contact between the Toyotas of Michael Waltrip and David Reutimann, trashed a dozen cars and set the tone for the entire race.
On this day, however, even if all the contenders had been running at the finish, Bayne had a good enough car to beat them all.
Notes: Jeff Gordon had been the youngest driver to win the 500. He was 25 years, 6 months and 12 days in 1997. The oldest driver to win the 500 is Bobby Allison, who was two months past his 50th birthday in 1988. … Polesitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. led three times for nine laps but was involved in a wreck during the first green-white-checkered finish and finished 24th. … Five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was collected in a 17-car pileup on Lap 29. He returned to the race and finished 27th, 19 laps back. … This was the first race under NASCAR’s new points system. Because Bayne is racing the for the Nationwide Series points championship, he did not earn any Sprint Cup points for the victory. Edwards is now the points leader with 42 points.