SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5 / AP) — NASCAR champion Trevor Bayne was in San Francisco Tuesday evening at Ghirardelli Square celebrating his Daytona 500 victory by making ice cream sundaes and signing autographs for flocking fans.
With his win over the weekend, the 20-year-old was the youngest driver to ever win at Daytona, which is NASCAR’s most storied race track.
Bayne seemed still in disbelief of his victory in the Great American Race, which came a day after his 20th birthday and in just his second start in NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup Series.
His beaming parents, who watched the race in the grandstand and fought the crowd to reach Victory Lane, didn’t even mind staying up half the night to wash his laundry so there would be clean clothes for his whirlwind media tour that included stops Tuesday in Connecticut, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Wide-eyed and laughing at the absurdity of his life-changing victory, Bayne was just going with the flow.
“It’s insane because we were kidding around, ‘Did you bring enough clothes to go if you win the race?'” Bayne said. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve got this. I’ve got two T-shirts.’ I thought it was a big joke, but here we are. This is so crazy.”
That’s how it seems to go in NASCAR’s biggest race of the season, which has a history of wild finishes and surprising winners. Sunday was no different, with a record 74 lead changes among 22 drivers, and a record 16 cautions that took many of the heavyweights out of contention.
It left a handful of unprovens at the front of the field in the closing laps, with some of the biggest stars in the sport bearing down on their bumpers. Among them was two-time champion Tony Stewart, who even Bayne assumed would pass him during the final two-lap sprint to the finish.
Nobody in those closing laps expected Bayne, driving the famed No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford — which, by the way, hadn’t won a race in 10 years — to make it to Victory Lane in one of the most difficult Daytona 500s in memory. New pavement made for a fast track that produced speeds over 200 mph throughout Speedweeks, and a new style of two-car tandem racing that required intense mental focus and the trust of other drivers.
Bayne proved he was up for the challenge in a qualifying race four days before the 500 when he pushed four-time champion Jeff Gordon, a Vallejo native, around the track for most of the 150-mile event. Consider that his parents still have a Gordon poster hanging in Bayne’s childhood bedroom in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“I’m watching thinking I can’t believe he’s drafting with Jeff Gordon, at 200 mph, down the backstretch,” his mother, Stephanie, said.
But the Baynes learned long ago not to underestimate the oldest of their three children. He’d been racing since he was 5 with the backing of his father, Rocky, and knew by 12 he needed to move to North Carolina and hook on with a NASCAR team.
His break came with Dale Earnhardt Inc. when he was 15, and Bayne made the move — alone — to a condominium outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Although Rocky spent several days a week with his son, Bayne was essentially navigating through life on his own, relying on team employees to give him rides to and from work because he was too young for a legal driver’s license.
His parents never questioned his decision.
“He’s always been a mature kid, he’s an incredible boy,” his mother said. “He makes really smart choices, and I’ve never worried about him. He’s a real likable boy.”
NASCAR is banking on America feeling the same way about Bayne.
Faced with sagging television ratings and sinking attendance, NASCAR has been searching for something or someone to excite its aging fan base. Even before Sunday there had been hope that Bayne and several of his peers could catch the attention of America.
With the victory, Bayne goes front and center before the public much faster than anyone had imagined and NASCAR will quickly find out if he’s enough to help Fox sustain overnight ratings for Sunday’s race that were up 13 percent over last year’s Daytona 500.
So far, aside from an inability to cook and a lack of desire to do his laundry, there doesn’t seem to be much to dislike about the fresh-faced Tennessean.
The weakened economy had devastated Bayne’s opportunities for advancement not long after his move to North Carolina, and nothing ever materialized with DEI as the organization needed a merger at the end of 2008 to stay afloat.
Bayne pieced together a deal midway through 2009 with father and son Gary and Blake Bechtel that put him in a Nationwide car for Michael Waltrip Racing. That’s where he ran most of last year until a lack of sponsorship for this season left him again looking for work. He was snapped up by Roush-Fenway Racing, which committed to him full-time in NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide Series this season even though there’s no sponsorship money in place for Bayne.
The deal came with a promise of seat time in the Cup Series in a 17-race deal with the Woods, a pioneering NASCAR team hit by hard times the last two decades.
The idea was for Bayne to just get experience. Because of the Daytona 500 win, he was faced with serious career decisions.
New NASCAR rules this season made drivers pick just one series to collect points, and Bayne checked the box next to Nationwide. He can change his mind and make a run at the Cup title, but he would not receive retroactive points for the Daytona 500.
It’s an enticing proposition: The format for the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship was also changed this year, with two spots going to winning drivers who aren’t already eligible. Under that system, Ryan Newman’s one victory last year would have put him in the Chase.
Now Bayne has his own victory — the first at any of NASCAR’s top three national divisions — and after NASCAR ruled Monday the win would count in Chase seeding, Bayne and his advisers had to consider his options.
But Bayne decided Tuesday that he would not change plans and run for a Sprint Cup championship this season. He said he planned to stay the course and compete for a NationwideSeries title as a member of Roush Fenway Racing.
“I’d love to run for a championship in either series,” Bayne said. “But, for now, I think we’re probably just sticking with what we planned.”
The most exciting part for Bayne? After spending a year trying to build a following on Twitter, his account has exploded over the past couple of days.
“I told everybody, ‘Man, all I had to do was win the 500? I could have done that a long time ago if I would have known that’s how I had to get followers,'” he said.
(Copyright 2011 by CBS Broadcasting Inc. and The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)