Four years ago, Trevor Bayne did something extraordinary. He won the 2011 Daytona 500 in a monstrous upset, becoming the youngest winner ever of NASCAR’s most famous race. He was 20.
I covered that Daytona 500 in person. I have been fortunate to see a lot of sports greats up close very early in their careers – LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, Serena Williams and Jeff Gordon among them – and at the time Bayne’s victory felt almost that momentous.
There was no way to know whether Bayne would ever rise to a superstar level, but I thought he was at the least on a very fast track to become a top-10 NASCAR driver. He was from Tennessee. He was smart, brave, God-fearing, and handsome – exactly the sort of driver you would order up if you were searching for big sponsorship money.
But now it is 2015.
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Bayne has not won a Sprint Cup race since.
This year is his best chance. After four years of part-time driving in NASCAR’s top series with the Wood Brothers, Bayne will have a full-time ride in the Cup series for the first time this season with Roush Fenway Racing. Bayne starts 37th in Sunday’s Daytona 500 (he would have had a better slot had he not wrecked Thursday night in one of the twin 150-mile qualifying races).
We have now entered “prove-it” time for Bayne, who is no longer the hot new thing. Younger drivers like Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney now garner much of the publicity he used to get. Contemporary Joey Logano (also 24 years old) won five Cup races and nearly captured the overall points championship in 2014.
“It’s crazy to think my dream is finally coming true,” Bayne told reporters at Daytona’s media day recently. “This is the year where I get to do what I’ve always wanted to do and be a Sprint Cup driver full-time.”
Since that Daytona victory, Bayne’s career has been mostly stuck in neutral. He would have liked to get to the Cup series earlier than this, but has tried to make patience a virtue.
“If you win one race and then all of a sudden get the ride of your lifetime and get to run full-time and do all that, you probably don’t appreciate it as much,” Bayne said. “So this patience deal has taught me a lot. I feel ready to go.”
Since that 2011 Daytona win, most of Bayne’s races have been in NASCAR’s second-tier series, formerly known as Nationwide and now called Xfinity. There he did win two races in 151 attempts but never finished better than sixth for the season.
The question has to be asked whether Bayne’s Daytona win was a fluke.
I don’t think it was. I believe Bayne can run toward the front and win, although there’s no way to know for sure until he runs this season.
Bayne has made more headlines for his health problems since his Daytona win than for anything else. In 2011, just months after the Daytona victory, he missed a number of races due to a mysterious condition that caused nausea, fatigue, blurred vision and occasional numbness in his arm while driving. He was hospitalized several times. Doctors tested for all sorts of things.
Two years later, Bayne revealed that he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. MS is an unpredictable disease in which the immune system attacks the central nervous system. Symptoms can be mild, such as fatigue, or severe, including paralysis or loss of vision. There is no cure, but treatment can help manage symptoms and reduce the disease’s impact.
Bayne feels fine now and ready for a full season of Cup racing. He sounds like he has been somewhat humbled by the past four years. “I think when you come in you feel like you know it all, even though you want to act like you don’t feel that way, you still feel that way,” he said. “I still have a lot to learn and I wish I would have been more of a sponge than I was when I first got into this sport.”
Bayne doesn’t mind the buzz that surrounds him each year at Daytona – he just wishes it was for a more current accomplishment.
“I think this is the year I’ve waited on since I was basically five or six years old, when I figured out this is what I wanted to do,” Bayne said.
Now Bayne, given his chance, has to prove he belongs.
Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler