Your Daytona 500 Winner: Trevor Bayne?

February 20, 2011

I don’t watch NASCAR. I am not one of those “durrr…it’s not a sport!” or “only rednecks watch” type of guys. I just don’t find it particularly entertaining, so I rarely pay attention to it.

I flipped by the Daytona 500 when there was nine laps left and stuck with it on the Man Rule that you watch ANY close game in the ninth inning (baseball), last four minutes or overtime (football), last two minutes or overtime (basketball and hockey), or last ten laps of an auto race. Even if it ends up taking a solid half hour, like the final ten laps of this race did, you have to stick with it. That’s just the rule.

Most times it doesn’t pay off, regardless of the sport. But this Daytona 500? Well, I’m glad I stuck it out.

I know very little about racing. I can name the top fifteen or so drivers. Beyond that, most of my knowledge comes from the Sweet’n Low scene from Days of Thunder. The best thing about NASCAR is that 95% of fans know about the same amount as I do. In this race, that was enough to appreciate the final two laps as they unfolded.

The race was won by some young driver named Trevor Bayne. Bayne is a 20-year old guy who was scheduled to race a part-time schedule of 17 races this season. Daytona was his second career NASCAR race. That in and of itself is beyond impressive, but the story is even more ridiculous than that quick recap.

The biggest reason why I don’t watch NASCAR is it seems like a waste of time to watch an entire race. The first 195 laps of a 200 lap race really don’t matter. Drivers in the top ten at the midway point of the race tend to bare little resemblance to the finishing order. That makes for a good mid-race nap, but I find it pretty boring. Someone wins the pole, some other people lead, and eventually one of the same eight or ten drivers or so inevitably wins the single race, but even that barely matters because Jimmie Johnson will win the Sprint Cup.

In a superspeedway race like Daytona, the race announcers tell me that being in first place with a couple laps to go can actually be a disadvantage. I don’t know if this is true. Maybe there are NASCAR sabermetricians out there somewhere working on this very problem. I assume there is at least a partial truth to this because one slip-up and the cars behind you rocket right on past.

This is why no one thought Trevor Bayne would win the Daytona 500 even though he led the race with two laps remaining. Even to the announcers, Bayne seemed like an afterthought.

No way could he hold off the talented drivers behind him. Not a kid that just turned 20 the day before and had one career NASCAR race under his belt. Not a kid who signed up for the Nationwide Series this year and wasn’t even officially considered a Sprint Cup rookie because he was not going to compete in enough races. And certainly not a kid who would have been a bigger story as a rare 20-year old driver if not for fellow 20-year old driver Joey Logano, who is actually nicknamed Sliced Bread.

Not for a cash-strapped team that plans on running only 17 races this season. Not a team that actually had to borrow their one car’s engine from another team. Not when the other team only gave the engine to them because they are one of the great teams in NASCAR history, even if they hadn’t won in ten years.

Not as one of the afterthoughts in a NASCAR race – one of those many drivers each week that show up each week to try to qualify, collect some points, run a few laps, and leave the race with a paycheck big enough to ship the car to the next track, where they can do it all again the following week.

But somehow Bayne hung on and I found a car race exciting for the first time. Ironic that the very reason I don’t watch NASCAR – that only the last couple laps of a several hundred lap race matters – is the very reason why the last laps of this year’s Daytona were so exciting. Bayne was the longest of long shots at the start of the race…and was STILL a long shot even though he led with two laps to go.

Improbably, he held everyone off for two full laps around the track, staying on a perfect low line around each of the eight turns. As he held steady through turn 4 on the last lap, Carl Edwards’s last chance to pass him, FOX smartly cut to his radio. All Bayne could say was “Are you kidding me?!?”

Now that was awesome, even if it was NASCAR.