Two days after a stunning Daytona 500 victory, 20-year-old Trevor Bayne continues to crisscross the talk show circuit with a charm that suggests yes, he's this year's American Idol jolt NASCAR needs. Wading through everything from a radio interview on the Dan Patrick Show to walking the red carpet in San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square, he's handled it all with a savvy and a smile that suggests the Tennessean's been in front of the limelight for decades.
In one sense, that's a good sign for a sport whose Daytona 500 ratings increased 13 percent. If done right, you have the best case scenario for a racing circuit in need of fresh faces, the perfect blend of young talent (Bayne) and old mentors (the Wood Brothers, whose first 500 win was back in 1963) that's sure to entice fans of all ages.
But it's here, where 15 minutes of fame cause expectations to rise faster than Blake Griffin's dunks where I grow concerned. Daytona's restrictor plate rules are in place for just four of 36 events, special circumstances that even the playing field between the "haves" and "have nots." You take that away, and what you're left with is a single-car organization in the Woods that's still holding a Folgers can on a street corner. Keep in mind how special Sunday's finish was: the Woods hadn't had a top-10 finish in two-and-a-half years, their sponsorship money forcing a limited schedule since the start of the '09 season. Their last attempt at this weekend's one-mile oval, Phoenix, was in 2008, and despite new alliances with Ford and Roush Fenway Racing, they'll be light years behind in the engineering and track notes that drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick take for granted.
That's a key point when multimillion dollar sponsors come calling for the Woods, armed with the money to turn things around but not the second team nor engineering, and long-term patience needed for the No. 21 Ford to develop back into a consistent factor on the Cup circuit. For his part, Bayne seems to understand the concept of patience, trying hard to stick with the 17-race, limited schedule he planned with the Woods while pursuing a title in the Nationwide Series. He's not even set up to accrue points toward the Sprint Cup title under this new system, and doesn't seem likely to make the switch.
So is that the right decision, staying the course in the face of cashing in now like a college junior declaring early for the NFL? Going forward, perhaps the two biggest people Bayne can learn from are last year's Daytona winner, Jamie McMurray, and Brad Keselowski.
McMurray, whose NASCAR record Bayne tied with a victory in his second career start, seemed on the fast track to success after scoring a surprise victory at Charlotte in a sub role for Chip Ganassi eight years ago. Filling in for Sterling Marlin, his skill was applauded but what was underestimated was the way the then-championship caliber No. 40 team gave the perfect setup for a young driver to step in and be successful. Continuing a jump up the ladder to Cup too quickly in 2003, then suffering through years of underachievement, McMurray, I'm sure, will tell you another year of development at the lower levels would have been preferable to learning in the national spotlight.
As for Keselowski, his restrictor plate Talladega win in April 2009 gave him full-time opportunities within days. Back then, though, he was a full-time Nationwide Series participant armed with a title-contending team and he chose to wait, build up experience at the lower levels and see what better jobs might become available. So where's he sitting now? In the seat of one of the most famous rides in the sport's glorious history, Penske Racing's No. 2 Dodge, driven by just two others since 1991: former Cup champs Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch.
Will Bayne be able to fend off the pressures of Ford, the Woods and NASCAR, each in need of a burst of positive energy now? Fantasies of a four-win Cup season, multimillion dollar deals and being able to tell corporate sponsors that yes, we can still develop talent at the lower levels, will be hard to push back. So much is at stake for those parties.
But even more is at stake for Sunday's 500 winner. That's why I hope, in the midst of all this feel-good, hunky-dory media attention, Bayne will have the guts to keep putting on the brakes. After all, isn't a lifetime of consistent, steady fame preferable to blowing it all in 15 minutes?
Time to get your thoughts on Sunday's historic achievement. As always, a friendly reminder about the ways to stay in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @NASCARBowles. Let's get started:
I am certainly one of those "old school" Wood Brothers racing fans. Since 1971, I have followed that team through all the years, the highs and lows. Just like 1976 when David Pearson won the Daytona 500 beating Petty, again, I cried like a baby. The Wood Brothers are what NASCAR is all about! Thank you for the great article.-- David Ray, Athens, Texas
That's the great thing about this one, hearing from all these "old school" fans energized again simply by seeing that No. 21 in Victory Lane. Having that Ford armed with an "old school" paint scheme, reminiscent of when it dominated superspeedway racing in the 1970s simply added to the nostalgia.
For the record, a gap of 35 years between Daytona 500 wins is easily a record for any car owner. What's just as impressive is the elite group Bayne joins, men who have won the Great American Race driving that car: Tiny Lund, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt and David Pearson. One of those names is already a Hall of Famer, a second is a shoo-in for NASCAR's Class of 2012, and Foyt? Well, he's arguably the best driver ever to strap behind a steering wheel of any car.
Congrats to Mr. Bayne, but shouldn't we wait to anoint drivers as the next big thing until they win at a mile-and-a-half cookie cutter? So many random things can happen at a plate track that it seems silly to read too much into it.-- Eric
I see your point, but it's one thing to win a regular plate race; the Daytona 500 is a whole different beast. No matter how much parity you have, the best drivers are going to be gunning for the sport's biggest trophy, and the block moves Bayne put on down the stretch, only a handful of other drivers would have duplicated.
That said, I'm somewhat on your side here (see: introduction above). I certainly don't expect Bayne to win again this year, and on those 1.5-mile ovals a top-10 finish with this type of single-car team would be a great accomplishment. Just watch out for this guy in 2012. He'll be driving a Ford full-time, for the Wood Brothers or Roush Fenway Racing itself, and will be a threat to win multiple races and make the Chase.
Good call on Trevor. I was bragging to everyone I was ahead of the game when I predicted he would do well in the Duels and the 500. You beat me there. Nice kid. Just what NASCAR needs. I hope he runs for the Cup this year. Legitimate Rookie of The Year for once; he isn't any Kevin Conway.-- Todd Jacobs, Las Vegas
Thanks for the kudos, Todd, but ...
Are Sprint Cup points and rookie of the year treated separately, now that drivers have to declare the series in which they want to accumulate championship points? Obviously, I'm wondering if Trevor Bayne can still be ROTY while not running for points.-- Tobey, Houston
That's the catch. Under NASCAR's new system, ridiculous rule No. 1 means if you can only score points in one series, your finishes in all the others mean absolutely zero. Sure, if Bayne chose to switch over to accumulating Sprint Cup points they might as well engrave his name on the trophy and give out the rookie award right now. But since he doesn't plan to, the current leader in Sprint Cup's freshman year tally is sports car ace Andy Lally. Don't know him? I don't know how you can; he finished a nondescript 33rd after being involved in a multi-car wreck.
The other part of this mess is not only will Bayne miss out on the award this year, but also he'll be ineligible come 2012 since 18 starts this season will be well over the "limit" of seven previous races for him to be considered a rookie next year. Perhaps this quandary will force NASCAR to change its rule.
On to some debate over the race itself ...
What race were you watching???? The slowest in recent memory. Way too many yellows. We had a snowstorm, & I was more interested in cleaning my driveway than this race. This crap is not Superspeedway racing.-- John Dhein, Germantown, WI
If NASCAR thinks this tandem push scenario that we witnessed on Sunday is going to enhance their product and attract more fans, they are sadly mistaken. That was the most boring Daytona 500 I have ever witnessed. This push BS only causes more accidents, and virtually takes out driver skill and strategy. I am a sometime participant, but if this continues, I won't be back.-- Tim McCue, Concord, N.C.
Before addressing these complaints, I think the ratings (up 13 percent year-to-year) speak for themselves in terms of fans embracing this concept of "two-car tandem" racing. I still find the whole concept odd. My biggest problem is that drivers from different teams and manufacturers were talking to each other on the radio, trying to entice each other into drafting with them like they were asking for dates to the prom. But the actual finish was hard to argue with, in my opinion, and certainly a different style of drafting after years of the "same old, same old" pack mentality created a curiosity factor.
Re: number of cautions, Daytona did set a record with 16 of them over a 200-lap period. I could see how it's a bit awkward having so many slowdowns, drivers learning this "new" draft in the public eye while making mistakes and untimely bumps that caused a lot of one- and two-car incidents. But these same fans complaining also want the old Bristol back, a one-groove racetrack where wrecking and 20 cautions flags were the norm. So what is the difference, really? When push comes to shove, the finish is what I'm looking for, and if you have a good one I think a great deal of the early "boredom" and wrecking will be forgiven.
As to Tim's point, I think the perception is that a lot of driver skill and strategy has been erased. It hasn't, it's just evolved into a different type that's harder to see with the naked eye. Every driver told me that drafting under this new system is 10 times harder. You can't see through your windshield if you're directly behind a guy, and you have to bump a car just right, consistently in the right place around the racetrack otherwise they'll spin out instantaneously (See: 16 cautions).
Again, I think the biggest problem going forward is the correct perception you need a second driver to help you toward the victory. That was always true under the old style of plate racing, but now with these 21 two-car drafts it's glaringly obvious. With the "newness" factor wearing off in July, will fans find this concept as exciting? I think it's a valid question to ask.
I hate the racing at Daytona with these two-car packs. You think NASCAR makes a change or do they wait for Talladega in April?
-- Nick Rolando
I think they do nothing, Nick. Why in the world would you make changes when more people viewed the race itself? We'll have to see what happens at Talladega, but barring some major catastrophe I think this rules package is a given for all four plate races this year.
You were way too harsh on Michael Waltrip this week. Seemingly every caution outside of engines blowing was caused by the first car spinning after getting pushed by the second. Waltrip's bump just led to the big one while most of the others just spun out untouched. Waltrip wasn't alone.
-- Steve K., Columbus, Ohio
OK, Steve, Waltrip wasn't alone in causing wrecks but he was alone in causing two of them. Oh, and did I mention the second took out 1/4 of the 43-car field? Add in a questionable Truck Series win on Friday, when Waltrip's spoiler broke on the last lap, something I've never seen before on the racetrack (an issue which could lead to penalties this week), and I'm not exactly enamored by his Daytona performances.
After Waltrip's tap -- of his own teammate, no less -- that caused the 500's big catastrophe Jeff Gordon summed it up best: "You have to use your head a little bit more [early in the race] and you have to be a little more patient."
I'd expect more of that patience to come from a two-time 500 champ. Wouldn't you?
After last week's race at Daytona, where speeds got up to 206 miles an hour, why, why, why has NASCAR further restricted the restrictor plates and slowed the cars down? NASCAR fans, like myself are "Speed Freaks"; I agree with Cale Yarborough on the subject.
-- Matt Wharton, Newport Beach, Calif.
Matt, I'm just like you and would love a race where the cars went as fast as humanly possible. But let me present to you example No. 1 of why NASCAR came up with these restrictor plates in the first place. And how about example No. 2, a flip that occurred even with speeds 10 miles an hour less than what they were experiencing out in Daytona.
Until we know for certain these cars will stay grounded at such high speeds, it puts the fans and drivers alike at risk to go that fast. I do think there's something to NASCAR's 200 mile an hour safety barrier, and while it raises the question why we're racing at a track that's inherently unsafe at full speed, slower plates were definitely the way to go.
When was the last time that a driver won both the DRIVE4COPD 300 & the Daytona 500 in the same year?
-- Chris Fiegler, Latham, N.Y.
That would be Kevin Harvick, actually in 2007. Tony Stewart had a chance this year but he and Mark Martin had a horrific final restart, dropping like a rock while a kid half their age in Bayne schooled them both. Combined, those two are now 0-for-40 in the Great American Race (a figure twice Trevor's age).
Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide race at Daytona was very exciting, and I thought was a good race overall. The problem I saw, however, was that the Nationwide regulars got almost ZERO practice time compared to the Sprint Cup drivers. The Sprint Cup Drivers had a chance to figure out the two-car hookups at the Bud Shootout, then the Duels, and they had at least three times more practice time in between those races. I felt it was very one-sided and no wonder that the Sprint Cup drivers seemed to have the system of the two-car drafts figured out a lot better than the Nationwide Drivers.
I believe, NASCAR should have given the Nationwide drivers the same or MORE practice time than the Sprint Cup Drivers, because they had NO previous races to figure out the two-car drafts. I believe Danica may have had a better shot at a win in this race if she would have got more practice switching from the front to the push car in those two-car drafts. As it turned out, it was still her best finish and she made the history books by being the first female to lead at Daytona in a NASCAR event, GO GIRL!
I hope there is more in store, and I still believe this will be a great year for her.
-- Steve Bell, Puyallup, Wash.
Steve, I agree the Nationwide guys got shafted with practice. Most of the regulars I talked to didn't even think the two-car draft would come into play on Saturday, and then, all of a sudden, they found themselves learning on the job as the Cup guys came out and used it. By the time any of them started figuring it out (See: Reed Sorenson and Jason Leffler) it was too late.
When it comes to Danica, though, I don't agree she would have had a better finish because honestly, she seemed unwilling to learn. At one point during the race, Clint Bowyer dumped her from a two-car draft due to his frustration with her ability to "suck up" to his rear bumper and learn from him correctly.
For most of the race, several drivers complained about the way she drafted only for her to complain on the radio at the end of the race, "Well, obviously I don't know this two-car drafting deal yet so ..."
So you learn, Danica. The crew chief can't explain how to make this happen for you at the end of the race.
No crazy e-mails this week, Thank God! I hope I didn't entice 20 more for next week.
Last Week's Trivia Question: Kurt Busch won his first restrictor plate race last night at the Bud Shootout. But who was the last driver to claim their first career victory for any NASCAR Cup race in the Daytona 500?
Wow, did this one become a timely question. Justin Seaman of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. got it first, correctly choosing Michael Waltrip's 2001 victory over Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Ten years later, it was Bayne setting the new mark, although his 0-for-1 winless streak seems far less heart-wrenching than the 0-for-462 drought Waltrip broke on that day.
Just to clear something up for some readers who asked: Waltrip actually won the Winston in 1996, NASCAR's version of the All-Star Race back then but since it doesn't count in the standings ... it doesn't in the record books, either.
This Week's Trivia Question: Trevor Bayne was the youngest to win a Daytona 500, but he's not the youngest to ever win a Sprint Cup race. Who did that and when?
Tweet of the Week:"Sayyyy what! I'm blown away at how amazing God's plan is! 500 winner :) can't believe it! My cheeks are already hurtin' from smilin' so much" -- @tbayne21, whose Twitter following went from a few thousand to nearly 30K (28,909 at last count) after winning the 500.