Published November 20, 2014
Trevor Bayne has yukked it up with Ellen and chatted with the vice president.
One thing he hasn't done is come close to repeating his stunning win in the Daytona 500.
Talk about a reality check.
"I wouldn't say I'm disappointed," the 20-year-old Bayne said Saturday, having just crawled from his car after a strong qualifying run at Talladega Superspeedway. "Sure, the standard got raised for us a little bit when we won our second race in the Cup series and our first Daytona 500. But this year is normal for any new driver coming into a series."
Indeed, since winning NASCAR's Super Bowl, he's turned in a string of finishes that are more in line with someone of his age and experience.
Bayne hasn't finished higher than 17th in six races since Daytona, but this might be the week for another strong finish. Talladega is NASCAR's other restrictor-plate track, leading to the same sort of tandem racing he adapted to so well in the season opener.
On Saturday, he was at it again, leading late in the Nationwide race until a late pass by Kyle Busch and a crash on the last lap brought out a finishing yellow. Bayne wound up sixth.
Now, it's on to the big one.
"I've been looking forward to this race for a while now," Bayne said. "This is fun for me. You've kind of got to think through it, be smart with it. It's a little bit different style of race. There's not the high intensity, even though you're running 200 mph hooked to another car. It's still not the adrenaline rush to me that you get at most other races. You can be more calm, think through things. It's a little easier."
Nothing has been easy for Bayne since Daytona.
The following week, he wrecked at Phoenix and finished 40th. There were a string of three straight finishes in the 30s before he improved to 17th at Texas last weekend.
Bayne is more confident about his chances at Talladega, which is a little longer and wider than Daytona but essentially the same trioval layout, with the same style of two-by-two racing. He'll start 11th in the Aaron's 499, the best qualifying effort of his young career, and shouldn't have any problem finding drivers willing to work with him.
"We've got a really good shot here at Talladega, as good as any," Bayne said. "Our superspeedway program is really good. We've got an awesome car."
It's not the same machine he had at Daytona; that one is now on display in the track museum. His new Ford looks different, too, switching to a red-and-yellow paint scheme instead of the throwback Woods Brothers design that was on the car in the season opener.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon teamed up with Bayne at Daytona, feeling perfectly comfortable leading the way with the kid pushing him from behind, or vice versa when it was time to swap.
"If that scenario pops up again, I'd be thrilled to work with him, whether it's being the pusher or being pushed," Gordon said. "He did a great job in Daytona. He looks like he's doing a great job here. He's got a fast race car as well."
Gordon's preference is to stick with his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, which is not a bad option. They were dominant during qualifying, becoming only the third team in NASCAR history to sweep the top four spots for a Cup race.
Gordon claimed the 70th pole of his career, with Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking the next three positions.
If nothing else, the Hendrick cars will be lined up perfectly at the start to pair off with each other — Gordon with Martin, Johnson with Earnhardt.
For those who complain that these sort of tag teams aren't real racing, well, get used to it.
"Let's get through Talladega with the two-car draft and see what happens. It's wide here. There's a lot of room to race. You might be surprised at how exciting this two-car draft will be," Gordon said. "It's different, yeah. It's unique, yeah. But it's here to stay. Sorry. Like it or not, it's not going anywhere."
Bayne obviously doesn't mind tag teaming, though he knows he set an impossible standard at Daytona, something he has no chance of living up to in the short term.
"I'd have to win 'em all. Obviously, we haven't done that," he said, breaking into a big smile. "But that win, I wouldn't trade it for any of this. It's just been a little bit of a struggle because this is tough."
And to think, he made it look so easy at Daytona.
"There's so much talent out here," Bayne marveled. "You look around, even when you're running 20th, and you've still got past champions and race winners all around you, guys I've looked up to my whole life. There's no slouches out here."
Bayne is not even considered a Sprint Cup rookie, choosing to run for the championship in the Nationwide Series. That will allow to contend for the Cup rookie of the year award in 2012.
But he's picked up a couple of extra races, adding Martinsville and the all-star event at Charlotte to his original 17-race schedule with Wood Brothers.
In the meantime, all those guys he beat at Daytona have been getting a little payback.
"They're just teaching me a lesson," Bayne said, "that it's not always going to be that easy."