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Daytona 500 lessons learned

On Saturday, Trevor Bayne was just another kid turning 20 -- a polite, Southern charmer with a big heart, better manners and a goal to be a NASCAR star.

That last one's not a dream anymore. Just 24 hours later, in his second Cup Series start, the Knoxville native outgunned veterans Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and others to become the youngest winner in the 53-year history of the Daytona 500, bursting onto the scene as the sport's newest hero-in-the-making. Ten years after the sport lost its biggest legend in that category, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., it was a circle-of-life moment as Bayne became the face of a record-setting race that put stock cars back at the forefront of the national consciousness.

Let's take a look at five things we learned from this year's shocking start to the NASCAR season:

1.) For Bayne, his win capped a record-setting 500-mile performance. At some point Sunday night or in the coming days, Bayne will pinch himself and recognize the magnitude of his accomplishment. It just hadn't happened when he met the media Sunday evening.

"I still don't think it's real," he said midway through a joyful news conference. "Sorry if I'm bouncing around on questions and answers. Figure I can do whatever I want to, since it's just a dream anyway."

Of course, we know the reality, how Bayne turned what appeared to be a lame-duck situation into a victory that will be talked about for generations. After running well all day, a timely push of David Ragan left Bayne second for a green-white-checkered restart of the race on Lap 202 -- the highest he'd been all day. And when Ragan, his drafting buddy, encountered a NASCAR penalty (we'll get to that a little later) it was the driver of the No. 21 Ford in front as soon as a Daytona-500-record 16th caution came out down the backstretch.

"I planned on being the pusher," Bayne explained of a situation in which the plan was to help Ragan to victory -- not himself. Suddenly, for the second green-white-checkered attempt, Bayne had lost his help while getting tailgated by Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Mark Martin: all respected veterans hungry for their first 500 victory.

How in the world did the kid not crack on the restart? Simple: he never really thought he was going to win.

"We're leading," he said. "So I thought it was kind of cool to say when we were leading at the start of the green-white-checkered. Then that was the best restart I had all weekend; I got to the white flag, and I'm like, 'at least we can say I lead at the white flag.' "

"We get to turn four and we were still leading; [I thought], 'Man, somebody's going to pass us, you know, what's going to happen here. Then nobody ever did.'"

How Bayne kept them at bay was through a timely decision off Turn 4, throwing a block to kill Carl Edwards' momentum while cutting inside to hug NASCAR's "out of bounds" line. That left the No. 21 in full control, Edwards with a choice of turning the leader sideways or settling for second -- and considering the latter's own nasty flip in that situation, at Talladega in April of '09, it was clear this time all cars would come out in one piece.

"I'm here to win just like they are," Bayne explained, dropping the humility act for just a moment. "I'm just glad we didn't get turned on that deal."

So is NASCAR, which now gets the best-case scenario of new blood and a marketer's dream to start off its season. As Bruce Martin wrote, the win will be popular with old school fans who have followed Bayne's team, the Wood Brothers, for generations: it's a remarkable comeback for the No. 21 Ford, whose last win came with Elliott Sadler in Bristol back in April 2001. In fact, just three years ago, the team Bayne drives for failed to qualify for this race.

"Missing the Daytona 500 ... it's like somebody died," said co-owner Eddie Wood, whose team last won it with David Pearson in '76 -- 15 years before Bayne was even born. "People are afraid to look at you, don't know what to say."

Now they'll shake hands, cheer this operation and proclaim the Woods back on the rise, armed with a driver who just one day ago was set on a part-time schedule that'll quickly be expanded pending sponsorship. The final cog in the wheel of a record 74 lead changes at this track, everyone involved is hoping Bayne will be the start of a modern-day NASCAR renaissance movement.

"I think the world's going to like him a lot," said Edwards. "I think he's going to have a lot of fun this week. I think he'll do a good job of representing the sport in whatever he does."

2.) Underdogs have their day ... except for David Ragan. It wasn't just Bayne who turned Sunday into an unexpected celebration. David Gilliland, after just two top-5 finishes in 150 starts, finished third with underfunded Front Row Motorsports. Pushing second-place finisher Edwards across the line, he said afterward that had they both committed to going high off turn 4 it would likely be Gilliland, not Bayne, holding the trophy.

"Our owner [Bob Jenkins] does this deal out of his pocket," Gilliland said afterward. "To come here, do that, and be here with this success is something to be proud of."

Right behind the podium finishers came the man Bayne credited for pushing him into position on the final restart, 2000 Cup champ Bobby Labonte in his new, single-car ride for JTG-Daugherty Racing. After a dismal 2010 season without a Top-10 finish, the first of his career, Labonte was given a much-needed jolt with fourth place. It's the best run for him in nearly four-and-a-half years. Kudos are also in order for Regan Smith (seventh, career-best finish) along with fifty-something, gray-haired former Cup champs Bill Elliott (12th) and Terry Labonte (15th). Even Steve Wallace, son of 1989 Cup champion Rusty, wound up a respectable 20th in his series debut.

But for every good story, there's an ugly ending and the driver truly kicking himself tonight is David Ragan. After pairing up with Bayne for the majority of the race, Ragan led the field to the first green-white-checkered finish only to jump the start and change lanes to cut in front of second place Bayne. To the naked eye, it seemed a fairly obvious call as Ragan was a car length in front by the start/finish line, leading to a stop-and-go penalty for him and a heartbreaking drop to 14th in the final running order.

"I know what the rules are," he said, disputing the penalty. "I don't think I crossed that invisible line that separates the top and the bottom." "You live and learn."

Still, losing a shot at winning the sport's biggest race seems like cruel and unusual punishment. In a touch of irony, it's Bayne who is rumored to replace 2012 free agent Ragan behind the wheel of the No. 6 UPS Ford next year. Could this ending have been a defining moment in both their futures?

3.) In an individual sport, succeeding in this race was all about pairing up. New pavement, new rules and new plates at Daytona were bound to make this race a different experience, but Sunday's event really turned bizarre at times. With the way the draft worked, every driver needed a partner for maximum speed so any and all loyalties -- manufacturer, multi-car team, even flesh and blood -- went out the window. Some drivers collected up to 15 radio frequencies of their rivals, turning each caution into speed dating where they would dial people up and literally beg other fast rivals to work with them. Among the weird conversations overheard were Ford's A.J. Allmendinger and Chevy's Mark Martin on the same radio channel, along with Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (different teams) and even the Busch brothers (two opposite on-track personalities) after virtually ignoring each other all day.

"We were having a lot of fun," said Jeff Gordon, describing the feeling of most drivers relieved to not deal with the large, 43-car chess match pack that used to define these restrictor plate events. "I totally get the two-car drafting and I think we are going to see more of it."

In the record book, the changes will go down in history as positive but the only worry going forward is whether fans will accept this deal of teamwork within an individual sport. That's where it still bothers me in this system: your fate determined not so much by individual skill but by the willingness of those around you to be a friend on the racetrack. Based on the results, though, don't expect to see any tweaks for the next plate experience at Talladega in April.

4.) Richard Childress Racing "blew" its chance at the 500 ... literally. After a Gatorade Duel win with Jeff Burton and strong performances from Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and Paul Menard, the four-car organization entered Sunday's 500 a slight favorite. But the team that seemed most in control of engine overheating during the preliminaries suffered the most during the main event: both Harvick and Burton were helpless as their motors expired well before halfway.

"We never blow," said Harvick, and he's right: RCR experienced its first double engine failure since August, 2006. "We had a touch more oil temp, but nothing out of the ordinary. The bottom just fell out of it."

That left Bowyer as the lone victory contender, leading 31 laps and setting himself up with a late Kyle Busch pairing that looked promising. But when Tony Stewart got a little overaggressive, bumpdrafting Kurt Busch into Smith to turn his No. 78 Chevy, it was Bowyer who found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I feel like I'm going to throw up," said a No. 33 crewman after the incident, leaving his driver limping home 17th. Replied his driver, summing up RCR's day: "Pretty much."

5.) Ten years after the 500 tragedy, Michael Waltrip made another major impact on the race: the wrong one. After retiring from full-time driving in 2009, Waltrip returned for this 500 to "celebrate Earnhardt's life," as he called it while marking the 10th anniversary of his own 500 victory. Too bad a quarter of the field was booing Waltrip's celebrity appearance, frustrated after an ill-timed bump draft just 30 laps in spun out the owner/driver's own teammate, David Reutimann, in front of the field. When the carnage cleared, 14 cars were involved and the field of contenders was decidedly thinned out the rest of the race.

Among those whose days got ruined: Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Reutimann, Brian Vickers and Waltrip with eight 500 victories, 10 Cup championships and over 170 victories between them. "The same thing happened twice," claimed the veteran, who also had an earlier incident with Kyle Busch that spun out the No. 18. "I'm pushing him and he says he's going to the middle [instead of saying on either side of Waltrip's front bumper] and it spins him out. I don't know what I could have done different. I hate it that my cars got tore up and I hate it that you have to be aggressive so early."

That high energy was verified by those record cautions, a phenomenon underdog Brian Keselowski explained: "Every single pair in the field thinks they can get to the front ... now." You'd just think a 47-year-old, restrictor plate specialist wouldn't be the ringleader of all that impatience 75 miles into the race.

5A.) So much for all that Dale Jr. conspiracy. After startling comments on Pardon the Interruption that insinuated this race would be fixed for Junior, all eyes were on the No. 88 from the start. No need to worry, though, as this day would prove NASCAR could never be fixed, even if all 43 cars tried. Encountering a roller-coaster day, Junior led nine laps late and seemed to be positioning himself for one final run to the checkers until getting wrecked during the first green-white-checkered failure.

"Had as much fun as we could under the circumstances," he said, winding up 24th. "It just got crazy at the end."

And now, the crazy week of remembrance is over for NASCAR's Most Popular Mood Swinger: a man who needs to simply forget about it all and move forward.

RACE GRADE: A. So much was made this week of the two-car tandems changing the scope of a race that had been defined by big packs and photo finishes. NASCAR fans can be resistant to change -- especially after having so much of it the last decade or so -- but by race's end most people, including me, were finally on board with the new package. With a record number of lead changes, a surprise winner and close competition, it's hard to argue over the way it all turned out.

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