The record book will state that Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, February 20th.
What it won’t state is that he also won the heart of a nation.
NASCAR is the all-American sport, a fact not lost on anyone who saw the race today in person or on television. Starting with embracing that most American of musical forms, namely country, with a pre-race show with Brad Paisley to the national anthem sung by Martina McBride, there was no mistaking this was as much a celebration of the USA itself as the start of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
The race itself was often a hot mess, the track’s new surface dictating two-car tandems in lieu of the massive pack previously the norm at Daytona. Yet even with this, competitors were racing in close enough proximity to where the dreaded “Big One” struck, taking many pre-race favorites such as Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson out of contention.
Through it all, in his second-ever Sprint Cup race Bayne maintained control, alternating between pushing and being pushed as he stayed at or near the top throughout the day. Nevertheless, when it came time for the race to draw to a close no one genuinely expected him to finish first. Surely one of the veterans such as Tony Stewart or Mark Martin would reign supreme.
Bayne held his line, planting himself directly in front of savvy veteran Bobby Labonte and refusing to let go, hugging the bottom of the track and making it well nigh impossible to pass him anywhere except on the outside. Labonte tried to make a move on the final turn, but Carl Edwards slid up to his left and tucked himself in behind Bayne. Bayne immediately managed to make his car twice as wide, holding off both Edwards and Labonte to the checkered flag. David Gilliand, who was immediately behind Edwards, came in third.
And what of Bayne himself?
You would have to turn the clock in Hollywood back eighty years to create Bayne. A day after his twentieth birthday, the fresh-faced kid blessed with looks that will make him an instant teen heartthrob and a heart after God — during the warmup laps where drivers usually give their team a pep talk he led his in a prayer, and after the race named several Christian charities to which he plans on donating a large part of his winnings — Bayne is the all-American boy from days thought long since past. He can also drive. Ofttimes winning at a restrictor plate track is assigned as much to luck as skill, but in Bayne’s case more than a few insiders pegged him as the real deal well before his victory.
Presently, Bayne does not have a full-time ride for the year. The venerable Wood Brothers organization, which fielded today’s winning car, is a low-key race team running a partial schedule. That said, one suspects that Bayne will swiftly find himself participating in every race, either through a sponsor or sponsors offering to fund the Wood Brothers team ramping up their efforts, or via a ride with a different team eager to employ that rarity in sports: an instant star genuinely worthy of the acclaim.
How fitting that the great American race was won by a great American kid.