Trevor Bayne knows he’s been blessed.
Never had a 20-year-old kid won the Great American Race — until last year.
Understandably, Bayne became an overnight sensation. He made the rounds on the talk-show circuit. Rubbed elbows with Ellen DeGeneres and George Lopez. He chatted by phone with Vice President Joe Biden and Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. And there was even the moment when Pamela Anderson compared Bayne to one of her sons.
Yes, Bayne’s astonishing win in the 2011 Daytona 500 should have been a springboard to stardom. But in the past year, there have been times it appeared the now-21-year-old was just spinning his wheels.
How can a driver so fresh, engaging and talented not attract the necessary sponsorship to provide the seat time to advance to the next level?
“Trevor is a good enough race car driver — at the very least, he should be driving a Nationwide car full time and running for that championship,” said Carl Edwards, Bayne's Roush Fenway Racing teammate and former NNS champion. “I think if we had to do it all over again, it would be done a lot differently.”
Certainly, sponsorship is problematic, particularly for Nationwide Series programs right now. Defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., another Roush teammate, also lacks a full complement of support for the No. 16 team.
For Wood Brothers Racing, Bayne’s Sprint Cup team, sponsorship also stands between the driver and a full-time ride. While the Wood Brothers reinvested Daytona 500 winnings into the team to expand Bayne’s schedule to 17 races in 2011, there’s only a 12-race budget this season.
Bayne is all too aware of the sponsorship reality. Most parents can carry a driver only so far financially in racing. By the time drivers reach the Sprint Cup Series, the budgets well exceed seven figures.
Still, last season, Bayne’s Nationwide Series owner, Jack Roush, ran the team out of his own pocket. While Bayne will start on the front row for Saturday’s DRIVE4COPD 300, the car will be named the “RFR 25th Ford.”
Bayne's biggest challenge right now isn’t performance; it’s finding a partner to subsidize his racing.
“For me, it’s just convincing guys that I can help their brand and be their race car driver and be their representative,” Bayne said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s the hardest part of our sport right now. It’s not (just) driving . . . ”
Bayne is grateful for the opportunities he’s had. His career appeared to be on the right path last spring after winning the 500 and running for the title in the Nationwide Series. Then Bayne became seriously ill after he was bitten by an insect. The symptoms were so severe he ended up at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Bayne was fourth in the Nationwide standings before he sat out five races in an effort to get well.
“I don't know if it took me off my game necessarily, but you never know what could have happened,” Bayne said. “We could have been Nationwide champions. I say that not taking anything away from (champion) Ricky and (crew chief) Mike Kelley, because they deserved it. But you never know how it could have played out. We were four points out of the lead at the time — not that it really matters, because it didn't happen.
“I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be now. For some reason, I'm supposed to be right here where I'm at. But, having won a championship, it could have changed things a little bit. But I would think that after winning the 500, as well, and it hasn't really. So I've just got to work really hard and stay after it and make the best of what we've got. You can't really look back and change anything.”
Team owner Eddie Wood has worked with legends in the sport. Yet he remembers vividly the day Bayne came buzzing into his shop to have his seat fitted for his Sprint Cup debut in November 2010.
Perhaps what Wood admired most about Bayne was how upbeat and genuine he was that day. And that demeanor didn’t change after the title Daytona 500 champion was placed next to Bayne’s name.
“With everything he’s gone through, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, he handled it really, really well,” Wood said. “He was already a very grown-up 20-year-old, but after winning the 500 and then getting sick and being forced out of the car, I think that was a real eye-opening experience that no one would want to go through or wish on anyone. But he worked his way through it and got healthy.
“I think he’s a more mature driver now, from having to deal with the adversity. There was a period last year when we didn’t run real well, but then it started to click again. And down here this week he has been real focused and ready to go.
“He told me just a little while ago, ‘I can win this race again. I’m going to win this race.’ So the confidence is there. The maturity is there. It just all has to fall into place.
"That’s how this race has always been. It’s historic. It’s always has been that way here — when it’s your day, it’s your day."
Bayne had a miscue during the first Gatorade Duel on Thursday, getting in a wreck on Lap 9 while drafting with Michael McDowell that damaged the right rear quarter panel. Then, on the last lap, Bayne drove over a coil spring from Danica Patrick’s mangled machine, relegating the No. 21 Ford to the No. 40 starting spot for the Daytona 500.
Still, Bayne is confident he can use what he learned during the qualifier to run up front on Sunday and defend his Daytona 500 title. But nothing will replace that first win.
“So coming back here and being called the champion, I still don’t think right now that I understand it,” Bayne said. “I can honestly say that in five years I’ll look back at it and appreciate it more than I do right now. And I already feel like I appreciate it to the max, but I’m sure later on it’ll mean even more to me.”
For now, though, nothing would mean more to Bayne than finding a sponsor.
“I just have to make the most of all the opportunities that I have and show everybody that I’m not going to sit around and complain about it,” Bayne said. “I’m fortunate to be the age that I am and have the opportunity that I have.
“I’ve raced against thousands of kids along the way that don’t even get this chance. But I want to be around for a long time and stay around, so that requires having sponsorship, that requires running for championships and running for race wins, and that’s what we want to do.”