A year after his stunning Daytona 500 win, Bayne remains humble
Last year, Trevor Bayne became youngest driver (20) to ever win Daytona 500
He was an overnight sensation, but an ailment helped him maintain perspective
If he wins again, he would become 3rd driver in history to win in consecutive years
It sits inconspicuously on a dresser in his childhood room in Knoxville, Tenn., alongside pieces of hardware collected on weekends spent racing go-karts and Allison Legacy cars. The Harley J. Earl Trophy doesn't look much different now than it did when Trevor Bayne received it in Victory Lane at the Daytona 500.
"It's still got Gatorade and confetti on it," he confessed.
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He's still got the same magnetic smile, the same playful, aw-shucks manner. The spotlight is undoubtedly brighter, but it's the same Bayne as he faces a throng of web and print reporters at NASCAR media day in his return to Daytona International Speedway a year after his stunning win.
Asked about his friendship with Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, Bayne jokingly replied, "Who's that?" And when the topic turns to whether the outwardly Christian driver had ever considered putting John 3:16 on his car, Bayne deadpanned, "I was going to wear it under my eyes."
"I try not to change who I am as a person," Bayne, 21, later told SI.com. "I don't want to be one of these guys who wins a race and thinks that he's king of the world or something. I still know I have a lot to learn."
For Bayne and his girlfriend of a year and a half, Ashton Clapp, anonymity isn't easy to come by anymore. Clapp recounts a trip to a Knoxville Panera Bread when they were approached multiple times for autographs and pictures.
"During an about 30-minute lunch probably about five or six different people came up," she said. "That's when I really knew that it had really changed."
There are no more trips to Wal-Mart with friends like before, when they would ride bikes and scooters throughout the store, not after you've appeared on TV alongside Ellen DeGeneres, Jay Leno and David Letterman, rubbed elbows with Pamela Anderson and taken calls from the likes of Joe Biden.
In 2011 Bayne was just excited to be a part of it, competing in his first Daytona 500 while on loan to the Woods from Roush Fenway. Now he's looking to become the third driver to win this race in consecutive years and the first since Sterling Marlin in 1994 and '95.
"Winning really would be the only way to have success compared to last season, that's what is so tough about it," he said. "Because honestly, if I finish in the top 10 this year in the Daytona 500, that's huge for somebody running their second-ever 500 at 21 years old.
"Last year finishing top 15 was our goal. So you almost have to hit the reset button and go back to that, but then again we know that we can win now and that's our goal, so we're going for it again this year."
Bayne thought his win would be a golden ticket. He said he had a picture in his mind of 100 sponsors calling, saying they wanted to back him. But it hasn't happened.
"That just goes to show how tough it is in our sport right now," he said. "We're going to work hard this year to get people to come in and be a part of it and just get them involved."
He is currently scheduled to run in 14 Cup races for the Wood Brothers and doesn't have a full-time ride in Nationwide either; Roush Fenway is entering him in the first three races with hopes that another strong run can help add more days to his schedule.
"It's tough because I want to be racing every weekend," he said.
"Daytona Stunner" graced USA Today's front page.
"Twenty Won" was splashed across the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
In his first-ever start in the Great American Race, he became its youngest winner, the 20-year-old eclipsing the previous record held by Jeff Gordon, who was 25 when he won in 1997. It was a story only sweetened by the fact he was racing for one of the sport's first powers, driving a famed No. 21 that looked eerily similar to the one Hall of Famer David Pearson once drove.
Bayne was an overnight sensation. He was being heralded as the future of NASCAR and its savior-to-be.
But to fellow drivers Justin Allgaier, David Cook, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Josh Wise, he was just the friend with whom they attended Bible studies. Back home he was still the kid who, at age 5, had his picture taken with Gordon and then-crew chief Ray Evernham at Bristol.
"They don't treat me any differently," Bayne said. "They were my family before, they were my friends before and now that I'm where I'm at in my career they haven't changed at all, and I think that's awesome."
It's that same support system that was there for Bayne last spring when those highest highs were replaced with the lowest lows.
He blamed the effects of a bug bite when he experienced numbness in his arm during an April event at Texas, then two days after the April 17 Cup race in Talladega, he woke up with double vision.
"The first question was, 'When are we going to go back racing?' and I never asked it in the sense if it's going to be months or weeks. I didn't ever ask like that. It was like, 'All right, tomorrow it's going to be better," he said. "I just kept trying to sleep it off every night."
Days stretched into five weeks and Bayne found himself at the Mayo Clinic, undergoing tests for what doctors initially called an inflammatory condition. He would later find out it was Lyme disease.
Bayne had built momentum prior to the ailment, sitting four points out of the Nationwide lead, and suddenly he found himself in a hospital, wishing for a rainout so someone else wouldn't be behind the wheel of his car.
It was hard to see any positives in the situation, but it has since served as a reminder that Bayne won't forget.
"Thousands of kids ... and adults never got the chance that I have," he said. "When I was in the hospital and had to look from the outside in at our sport, that's when I realized that I'm a really blessed person to even have the opportunity to do it and it gave me a whole new appreciation for it."
Said Stenhouse: "He knows it can easily change and in a crazy way it did ... I think that kind of threw everything into reality like, 'This isn't going to be here all the time.'"
Bayne made his way away from the group of writers and was heading toward an awaiting line of TV cameras when he looked up to see one of NASCAR's other fresh faces walking in the opposite direction.
"Hey, how ya doing?" Bayne asked.
"We all have to make the rounds," Danica Patrick said, smiling as she threw her arms up and disappeared around a curtain, off to deal with a burgeoning crowd of her own.
Bayne smiled for the cameras. He laughed. He charmed. He joked with Stenhouse, ribbing him for wearing a firesuit with a gigantic number on the back. Stenhouse took offense, declaring he'd designed it himself. Then Bayne stopped to chat up X Games legend-turned-NASCAR driver Travis Pastrana. Flashbulbs popped as they stood together.
He's already hours in and yet Bayne's day is far from over. There are more media commitments, and other appearances on the DIS grounds.
"It's wild to see how people perceive you now as a champion," Bayne said.
Stephanie Bayne has made some alterations to her son's old bedroom. Gone are the pictures of drivers that once graced the walls. Gone is a poster of Gordon, Bayne's childhood hero. As Clapp puts it "[It looks] a little more grown up."
Its surroundings may be different, but the Haley J. Earl Trophy is still the same, covered in confetti and Gatorade, sitting on that dresser. It remains as unaltered by this last year as its owner.
The celebrity. The pressure. Bayne hasn't let it change him, not one bit.
"I just want to be the Trevor Bayne that I was before I won the 500 and I want to be the same Trevor Bayne this year whether I win it or I lose it," he said.