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Expectations, pressure mount for Daytona 500 winner Bayne

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Trevor Bayne has been cast a savior, an exorcist of old ghosts and current demons, the 20-year-old shepherd who would lead NASCAR back to the land of unbridled success it enjoyed the past few decades.

His beyond-surprising victory in the Daytona 500 on Sunday uncorked a torrent of jubilation that fans and some media have been yearning to release for quite some time. His youth, at 20 years and one day, and inexperience -- he was making just his second Sprint Cup start -- and that he won for the woebegone Wood Brothers team, made the story even better. That Bayne won on the 10th anniversary of the death of Dale Earnhardt made him an easy figure to ordain as the keeper of the future, the herald to a new age.

But it's all a bit unfair. Elevated, unattainable expectation despite what appears to be a great deal of talent. He might become another Jeff Gordon, who set a record by winning his first Daytona 500 at age 25. He might become another Derrike Cope, with one career Daytona 500 victorty. Likely, he'll meander somewhere in the middle because of the extent of the extremes.

And assuredly he will not be the savior of the Wood Brothers, a classy, pure-intentioned family of racers trying to maintain and honor the memory of a family business upon which NASCAR laid its base, a team that has fielded race cars for many of the best drivers in the series' history but fallen into irrelevance in a modern world.

The Bayne-to-glory story has very much a Kentucky Derby-esque feel to it with its young hero and seasoned connections, but this colt will eventually reside in another stable. Bayne is under contract at Roush Fenway Racing, where he is contesting a full Nationwide Series schedule this season, and was farmed to the Woods in a deal that includes an agreement to purchase race cars and technical support. So committed to developing Bayne is Roush that it is fielding his Nationwide season with little sponsor dollars. So Bayne is his when he wants or needs him.

"We've got Trevor signed up for this year and beyond that it would be up to Jack [Roush]," team co-owner Len Wood said. "[Trevor] is his driver, but for this year, he's ours."

Probably. Although Bayne is scheduled to race 17 more Cup events for the Wood Brothers, and perhaps more if the Daytona 500 win can be parlayed into more sponsor moneys, the capricious nature of driver contract negotiations has a way of undoing done deals. Roush Fenway drivers Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle are all in the final years of contracts, and although both have expressed a desire to stay, bizarre things often happen once the weather gets warm.

Because drivers often leave for the next gig before the current one has concluded -- see Kasey Kahne -- Roush might very well have a vacancy this summer. A defending Daytona 500-winner currently under contract and already running an in-house full season Nationwide program would seemingly constitute the most logical move. Roush officials would not comment on contract discussions or possible future moves.

Roush Fenway has 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth and David Ragan -- winless in 147 Cup starts in four full seasons -- currently under contract. Ragan's dip to the low line before a first green/white/checker restart cost him a chance for a career-defining victory when he was black-flagged in the Daytona 500, and allowed Bayne to pass him. Bayne assumed the lead in a jarring bit of symbolism.

Bayne, meanwhile, seems literally just happy to be here.

"I'd be happy right here forever," Bayne said. "These guys are awesome. It's just so incredible to be surrounded by them, so, either way it goes I'll be happy."

Bayne, a three-time World Karting Association and former Allison Legacy Series champion, has struggled to find a steady racing home since he made the jump from his father Rocky's USAR Pro Cup team at 15 to a developmental deal with Dale Earnhardt Inc. That company's eventual decline left Bayne without a NASCAR affiliation until he signed with Diamond Waltrip Racing, but a lack of sponsorship set him adrift again until Roush Fenway swiftly signed him late last season.

"We were trying to decide what we were going to do and we ran into Gary Bechtel two years ago," Rocky Bayne said. "He was walking on pit road and Martin Truex (Jr.) had just won the pole for the Daytona 500 and Trevor had done all the testing in that car for DEI for Martin Truex. Now it's sitting on the pole for the Daytona 500. We're walking down through there and I'm thinking, This kid is 17-18 years old and he doesn't have a ride and that car is sitting on the pole. It's a shame."

Bechtel helped arrange a partnership with Waltrip, which fielded Nationwide Series cars for Bayne in 2009 and 2010 -- he was seventh in points last season -- until Waltrip released him, he said, because of a lack of funding. Bayne, having already experienced the merciless business aspect of the sport as a teen, now stands to reap the reward of the racing side on the track with a traditionally strong team.

"You don't want anything to hurt your kid. You don't want them to have to go through tough times, but that's what makes them who they are and you kind of have to sit back and watch," Stephanie Bayne said. "I know he loved it at DEI. I think funding, the economy, everything made that end. But talking to him, he would always say, "Mom, you know, even if its negative, something bigger will come of it." It did."

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