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Though they all embraced it, the new style of racing had drivers shaking their heads. "I've never seen anything like this before," said Bill Elliott, who first raced at Daytona in 1976 and would finish 12th on Sunday. "Just like a bunch of kids playing leapfrog but doing it in pairs."
The biggest problem with this brand of drafting is that the driver doing the pushing can't see what's ahead on the track. So if a car slows in front of one pair, there often isn't time for the pushing driver to brake, which can lead to major crashes. On Sunday this happened on Lap 29, when Michael Waltrip slammed into the back of David Reutimann, who lost control, triggering the Big One. Twelve cars wound up in the garage, including the number 48 Chevy of five-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who finished 27th.
Bayne, meanwhile, unlike every other driver in the field, was making his first Cup start at Daytona, and he flourished in the two-car draft. His inexperience proved to be an asset. There were no drafting techniques, after all, that he had to unlearn. "I had no preconceived notions going into this," Bayne said. "The only thing I knew was to push, push, push."
On the final restart of the race, with two laps to go, he was in the lead for the first time all day. After the green flag waved, Bobby Labonte, who was directly behind Bayne, hit the rear of the number 21 car, pushing Bayne to a three-car-length lead. Though the race featured a record number of lead changes (74) and leaders (22), Bayne made sure there would be no last-lap pass for the win; he calmly blocked Edwards on the bottom of the track to cruise across the finish line a car length ahead of Edwards's number 99 Ford. Bayne won $1.46 million for taking the checkered flag—his winnings since 2007 had totaled $1.6 million—and the unlikely victory ignited a wild celebration in Bayne's pit. Edsel Ford II, the great grandson of Henry Ford, bear-hugged Len Wood, a co-owner of Wood Brothers. Racing in the Cup series since 1953, the Wood Brothers are the oldest team in NASCAR. But their glory days were in the 1970s, long before Bayne was born, when driver David Pearson was winning nearly every week, and until Sunday they hadn't reached the winner's circle since 2001. This is why dozens of drivers and owners, from Mark Martin to Richard Petty to Kurt Busch, visited the team in Victory Lane, congratulating them on authoring the sport's best feel-good story in years.
Bayne's path to the Cup circuit was a relatively short one. His first motorized vehicle was a mini motorcycle with training wheels, which he started riding around his Knoxville, Tenn., neighborhood at the age of three. Before he was a teenager, he'd won three karting world championships and racked up more than 300 wins. At 13 he moved to the Allison Legacy Series, a backwater stock car circuit. With his dad, who owns a floor-care company, acting as his crew chief, Bayne took 14 checkered flags in 21 starts in his second season, in 2005, winning the series title that year.
At 15 he moved with his dad to Charlotte—the hub of NASCAR—to try to catch the attention of a top team. Soon, he was staying there on his own for periods, working on his GED online and speaking with his father and mother, Stephanie, several times a day. He raced in the NASCAR Camping World East Series and eventually was signed by Roush Fenway Racing late in 2010 to run full time this season in the Nationwide Series, the Triple A of NASCAR. Owner Jack Roush supplies engines and chassis to the Wood Brothers, and when co-owner Glen Wood asked Roush who he thought should drive for his team in this year's 500, Roush immediately volunteered Bayne.
"Trevor excels at diagnosing problems in the car and telling his crew chief exactly what changes need to be made during pit stops," says Len Wood. "He's only 20, but he's got the mind of a longtime veteran."
In an odd twist, Bayne isn't even eligible to win the Cup title this year. In the off-season NASCAR announced that a driver could compete for a championship in only one series in 2011, and Bayne picked Nationwide over Cup. He's planning on running in only 18 Cup races this season, but after Sunday's life-altering victory, that could change if an influx of sponsorship money arrives at the Wood Brothers race shop. Bayne's plan is to race full time in the Cup series in 2012.
"I hope the other drivers don't look down at me as being some young punk who comes in here and wins in just his second start," said Bayne late on Sunday, in Victory Lane. "This is just the beginning for me. Hopefully I'll keep proving that I belong here."
Minutes later Bayne walked off into the night, heading into a future that suddenly is filled with more promise than that of any other young racer in America. That happens when, at age 20, you pull off the most shocking win in the history of the Daytona 500.