Sunday’s Daytona 500 race provided record breaking galore and the perfect fairytale ending. The new kid on the block, Trevor Bayne, who celebrated his 20th birthday the day before the big race held his nerve and became easily the youngest winner ever of the jewel in the crown of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season and the only driver to win at his first attempt other than the winner of the first ever Daytona 500, Lee Petty in 1959.
The win gave car manufacturer Ford their 600th win in Sprint Cup racing and the owners of the no.21 car, the fabled Wood Brothers Racing team their first Daytona 500 win since David Pearson’s victory in 1976.
Other records broken included most lead changes during the race, an increase of 14 to 74, most race leaders with 22, most caution flags with sixteen altogether for a total of sixty laps and the most unlikely record of all at one of NASCAR’s main events, a winner too young to drink the Champagne!
The race started pretty much as most watchers had expected with the front of the field splitting into bump-draft pairs and the remainder circulating as one large pack. Lap three saw a moment of great poignancy as all commentators stopped talking for a silent lap and every one in the crowd stood and held three fingers aloft as a mark of respect to acknowledge the tenth anniversary of the death of the driver of the number three car, the great Dale Earnhardt.
Many of the big teams had a race they would rather forget. Richard Childress Racing had two of their four cars out of the race before half distance with blown engines for Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton and two of the Roush Fenway Fords, those of Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth spun out and hit the wall within seven laps of each other.
And it was as good as a foregone conclusion that a large Daytona midfield pack running three wide for the most part was going to end calamitously and as early as lap 29 they had the “big one”. Michael Waltrip hit David Reutimann and the ensuing mayhem took out almost half the field. Five of the cars were repaired in the pitlane but twelve others needed to go to the garage for extensive rebuilding including the cars of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, three quarters of the Hendrick squad.
The whole field were driving too aggressively and pushing too fast, too soon was the opinion of Gordon as he waited for his car to be patched up. Most of the cars did get back on track even if, like Marcos Ambrose they were to run over 120 laps down from the leaders. The new points system hasn’t in any way diminished the need or desire to pick up as many points as possible.
Despite NASCAR’s rule changes to cut down on bump-drafting the drivers inevitably worked out how they could run in pairs for as long as possible knowing there was an extra twenty miles per hour to be had. The pushing car couldn’t stay hooked up to the rear of his draft buddy for too long before overheating became a risk and drivers needed to perfect the art of swapping positions as quickly and smoothly as possible to avoid other pairs gaining ground on them.
With the record number of caution periods it became more and more difficult to be close to their favoured draft partner at each restart and drivers could ill afford to waste time waiting for another car to catch up with them so the race became one of ever changing pairings, even more so as cars were eliminated in wrecks. Drivers had the radio frequencies for many of their competitors and were constantly arranging to run with each other unless, as Carl Edwards found out when trying to hook up with Kyle Busch, he was rebuffed because Busch said another driver had asked him first!
Several of the big name drivers seemed to be almost anonymous for well over half the race. There was little mention made of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards. Having seen the wrecks caused by the impetuousness of some of the drivers in the pack they had chosen to sit near the rear of the cars on the lead lap and wait until things had calmed down – and hopefully the more reckless had eliminated themselves.
In the final quarter of the race they made their way forwards and started to figure in the pairings racing at the front. For a long time it looked as though the winner would come from one of the more cautious men along with the likes of Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch who had managed to race up front for most of the afternoon and yet steer clear of the wrecks.
Meanwhile, all race Trevor Bayne had been seeking drivers to hook up with. His favoured drafting partner, Jeff Gordon, who clearly thinks very highly of the youngster having drafted with him for most of Speed Week, had been all but eliminated in that early wreck. Whenever Bayne got together with someone his car in combination with theirs proved to be very fast but he did tend to lose time at the restarts.
Four laps before the scheduled end Bayne and David Regan ran the fastest lap of the race to that point and gatecrashed the leading group. A lap later Kurt Busch, Regan Smith and Clint Bowyer took each other out and under the caution Bayne and Regan found themselves leading the field. As they lined up to restart for a green-white-checker finish they agreed between them to let Regan edge ahead as they took the green and then run in tandem hopefully to the checkered flag.
Regan managed to ease ahead of Bayne and drop down in front of him as they approached the line – and that was his undoing. NASCAR instantly announced a black flag for the #6 UPS Ford citing the rule which states a car must not change lanes until it has passed the start-finish line. An incensed Regan was called to the back of the drivers on the lead lap and eventually was recorded as finishing in fourteenth place.
Yet another yellow flag was thrown when Earnhardt Jr., Truex Jr. and Newman all collided trying to avoid Robby Gordon coming back on to the track from an excursion across the grass.
That set up a second green-white-checker finish with Bayne leading surrounded by some of the most wily and experienced drivers in the field with Tony Stewart beside him, and veterans Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte in the row behind. To be honest he looked as though he would be swallowed by the three men who have won 100 races between them but he held his nerve with Labonte pushing him, kept the car to the inside line and to a feeling of disbelief crossed the line, winning the race that all American would-be racers dream of winning.
His youth and inexperience showed for the first time when Bayne needed some guidance on how and where to find victory lane. And there you couldn’t help but notice that the #21 Motorcraft Ford, painted in the old traditional Wood Brother Racing livery of red over white with gold numerals was almost certainly the only car to finish the race unscathed as the brothers recorded their 98th Cup win.
Some race wins have that magical, fairytale quality to them and this was one of them. Kurt Busch was quick to get to victory lane to congratulate Bayne and even the legend that is Mario Andretti tweeted his congratulations within minutes of the result.
Bayne is only scheduled to run a partial season in the Sprint Cup Series having committed to run full time in the Nationwide Series. For that reason irrespective of how well he races in the Wood Brothers Ford in 2011 he will not be eligible to race in the season ending Chase to find the champion.
If the remainder of the 2011 season lives up to the excitement and promise of the first race then this is going to be a year to remember.