For a driver who didn't expect to race in Sprint Cup this season, Trevor Bayne sure looked like he belonged there Sunday with a 17th-place finish at Texas. It was an auspicious debut that nobody, with the possible exception of Jack Roush, could have seen coming.
Bayne, 19, drove in the opening 28 Nationwide Series races this season for Diamond-Waltrip Racing. The team held an option on Bayne for 2011 that required a full Nationwide season. Diamond-Waltrip was unable to find the sponsorship by the Sept. 15 deadline to exercise the option, but continued to run him in the next two races. Bayne was technically a free agent, but he wasn't in a hurry to leave and was surprised when the team released him the last week in September.
Roush swooped in and had him signed within three days, in time to drive for Roush Fenway Racing in the Nationwide race at Kansas. Roush prides himself on developing his own drivers. He did it with Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and David Ragan and, to a lesser extent, Matt Kenseth. Roush Fenway has run three prospects in Nationwide this season: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Colin Braun and Erik Darnell. Roush decided he needed to make room for Bayne, who was seventh in points with five top-5s and 10 top-10s in the 28 races.
Bayne's contract put him into a Roush Fenway car for the rest of this season and all of 2011. But it didn't include an opportunity to race in Cup.
Roush wanted to see just how far Bayne's talent had been developed in less than two Nationwide seasons and farmed him out to the famed No. 21 Wood Brothers.
The Wood Brothers is running part time in Cup and has a new crew chief in Donnie Wingo, who replaced David Hyder in early October. Bill Elliott has been the team's regular driver this year, running 12 races with a best finish of 16th.
Let's summarize: a part-time team with a crew chief that had been with the team a month fielding a driver starting his first race. Oh, yeah, throw in that the driver has to qualify on time just to make the race and it's a situation that didn't portend anything good. Bayne was the fastest of the go-or-go homers, qualifying for 28th position, and ultimately taking home a 17th-place finish, the team's second best result of the season.
It has been a remarkable five weeks for Bayne, from unemployed to outrunning 26 drivers at Texas.
"It's just crazy to see how it happens," Bayne said. "Everything seems like it's the end of the world when Diamond-Waltrip Racing has no sponsorship and can't sign a contract and, then, all of a sudden I hear that Jack Roush is making comments that he's interested, so I checked into it and the next thing I know I'm signing a contract with him. Shortly after that, I'm hearing I'm gonna be in the Wood Brothers Cup car, so it's been a whirlwind, but it's been really exciting to see it happen."
Bayne started 43rd, forced to the back because of a transmission change. He climbed to a high of 14th, but lost positions on pit stops.
"We had a terrible pit stall because we were right with the guys we were racing with and I couldn't get in and out and got boxed in a few times," Bayne said. "We had to pass so many cars, like 10 or 15 a run.
"It's definitely the most fun I've had in a long time in a race car and it was just an overwhelming weekend. We had a great run and that was probably more than anyone really expected out of our first run together."
NASCAR's contracting economy makes it difficult for development drivers to get a shot at Cup. The top-35 owner points qualifying rule hurts them, too.
When they get the opportunity in Cup, they need to make the most of it.
Bayne won't have a chance to drive another Cup race until next year.
Elliott will return to the Wood Brothers for the finale at Homestead-Miami. Bayne will concentrate on getting his first Nationwide win in the final two races.
"I would love to be in a Cup car all the time with as good as our weekend was and as much fun as those cars are to drive with the (additional) horsepower," Bayne said. "I wish I could do it all the time, but now I'm ready to take a step back to Nationwide and try to get a win there. We still have a couple more races to do it and, if not, we still have all of next season with a full-time deal to try and do that."
Bayne's future in Cup isn't certain, but he's going to get more chances to make the final, steep step up from Nationwide. Texas was a game changer for Bayne, and Roush's mathematician's mind is hard at work putting together a plan for him.