The 2011 Daytona 500 proved to be a record-breaking event in more ways than one, but the key fact that will catch the headlines is the name and age of the winner - relative unknown Trevor Bayne, at just 20 years and one day old, is the youngest ever winner of the Great American Race.
Only Joey Logano has won any Sprint Cup event at a younger age (he was 19 years, 1 month and 4 days old when he won at New Hampshire in June 2009.) Moreover, Trevor Bayne did it in only his second Sprint Cup series start, joining Tiny Lund (1963), Mario Andretti (1967), Pete Hamilton (1970), Derrike Cope (1990), Sterling Marlin (1994) and Michael Waltrip (2001) as drivers to get their first-ever Sprint Cup wins at the 500, and equalling Jamie McMurray's record of winning his second Cup start. It was also a race that set new records for the number of cautions (16) in the event and the number of leaders (22) and lead changes (74), and tied the record for number of laps under caution (60).
Bayne certainly never looked on course for a record-breaking victory until virtually the moment the chequered flag came out. Until then, he'd been busy dutifully paying his NASCAR dues and pushing other, more experienced drafting partners to the front all afternoon. But the field had been thinned by a series of accidents and technical problems that eliminated many of the more fancied drivers and cars as the race progressed.
The race started at 1.29pm Florida time, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. moving to the rear of the field during the warm-up laps to allow Kurt Busch to lead the field to the green flag. On lap 3 there was a lap of silence, as fans stood and raised three fingers to remember the driver of the #3 car, the great Dale Earnhardt Sr., who died at the Daytona 500 in 2001.
And then the race was properly underway, and almost immediately there were problems as Michael Waltrip got into the back of Kyle Busch in a botched attempt at hooking up for some drafting. Kyle slid through the grass without hitting anyone else to bring out the first caution of the day, the #18 having to head for pit road to have the bodywork checked out but getting the all clear to return at the back of the lead lap; the damage to the rear of the car would prevent anyone from successfully pushing him in a draft for the rest of the afternoon, however. Racing was barely back up to speed when the second yellow came out on lap 11, as JJ Yeley's car started emitting smoke and possible fluids onto the track; Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s spotter was late to tell his driver about the caution and as a result the #88 nearly got into problems with Martin Truex Jr., until Truex was able to save the situation by dropping below the double yellow line.
The early laps were all about auditioning for drafting partners, and Jeff Gordon was certainly playing the field, first taking up with Brian Vickers, then Matt Kenseth, before then trying out Trevor Bayne, whom he had to tutor step-by-step in the delicate art of two-car drafting; Bayne proved a remarkably fast learner. Juan Montoya had just taken to the lead working with Jamie McMurray when Kevin Harvick blew his engine on lap 22 to bring out the third caution - it would prove to be Harvick's first DNF in 152 races. Clint Bowyer led the field to the restart, but racing lasted only three laps before yellow flag number four - and it was a big one.
It was triggered by Michael Waltrip getting into the back of David Reutimann - the second botched attempt Waltrip had been involved in after earlier spinning Kyle Busch, although he was adamant that it was the other driver who had suddenly changed line and caused the wreck: "I was pushing David," Waltrip said. "Then he said, 'Gotta go low, gotta go low,' and then we were sideways." This time, Reutimann was running the top line and so when he was spun round he took Waltrip with him, the two performing a graceful pirouette in the middle of the track that sparked chaos behind as cars had nowhere to go but into one another.
In total the wreck caught up 17 of the 43-strong field as it played out. While some of the cars were able to squeeze through with only superficial damage, it was the end of any realistic hopes for big names such as Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Others involved included Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Andy Lally, Joe Nemechek, Brian Keselowski, Marcos Ambrose, Brian Vickers, AJ Allmendinger and Greg Biffle - a real mess, but it at least thinned out the field and made more room on the track, and forced drivers to make hard choices about long-term drafting partners from those cars that were left available to them. McMurray and Montoya were still out front, but Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer soon made a formidable combination to take the lead, and then Regan Smith and Brad Keselowski hooked up and went in front, before Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart had their moment in the spotlight.
A fifth caution on lap 47 for Robert Richardson Jr hitting the wall allowed many cars to pit and have Terry Labonte a point for leading at the restart. Bowyer and Burton had linked up to take the lead just before the next caution on lap 57 for Brian Vickers stalling, which brought in the leaders for their pit stops, after which it was Kurt Busch and Regan Smith who seemed to be alternating in the lead with Bowyer/Burton until Travis Kvapil brought out the seventh caution of the day getting loose on lap 74. After the restart Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne found a good rhythm to take the lead for a short while before suddenly Ryan Newman and Joey Logano paired up and blazed a path to the front.
Of all these pairings, one of the most stable and productive was the Burton/Bowyer hook-up, which made Burton's engine blow-up on lap 94 particularly devastating for them both, sending Burton to the garage and leaving Bowyer isolated on track. Among the pairings that took over for brief stints at the front was that of Trevor Bayne and Robby Gordon, and Bayne was catching the eye of the more experienced drivers as someone who not only had a car with raw pace but who was catching on to this drafting thing amazingly quickly, and could be relied upon not to do anything stupid - like certain other veteran drivers earlier in the race.
The race was past half distance when Juan Montoya spun on lap 107 to bring out the eighth caution, but the #42 escaped serious damage and was able to rejoin the race as everyone took the opportunity to pit. Kurt Busch was quick to take up the lead with Regan Smith's help, then Martin Truex Jr was another to find Trevor Bayne useful and amenable to take the lead on lap 122 just as Travis Kvapil brushed the wall and left some debris on track, prompting a brief ninth caution as he took to pit road. After that, Richard Childress Racing team mates Bowyer and Menard were in front until the next caution on lap 134 which was caused by Matt Kenseth catching the wall and going into a spin that caught up Greg Biffle in light contact. The next green only lasted three laps before Biffle got turned into the wall by Montoya lap 143. Montoya survived by taking to pit road but Biffle's front section was in bad shape and triggered the 11th caution of the afternoon.
The main pairings emerging at this stage of the race were Bowyer/Menard, Earnhardt Jr./Smith and Truex/Bayne. Newman took up with Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch and Joey Logano also proved very fast albeit briefly, before Travis Kvapil caused his third caution of the afternoon - the 12th yellow of the race in total - with more contact with the wall, much heavier this time and an impact that finally did for the #38 once and for all. With just over 40 laps to go, that gave the field the opportunity to come in for what should prove to be their final pit stop of the afternoon. Carl Edwards was on the radio to Kyle Busch to see if the #18 wanted to pair up; Kyle declined, saying that Trevor Bayne had asked first. Bayne had managed to run in the top ten for virtually the entire afternoon, and while no one at this stage had any doubt that he would fade in the final laps it was clear that his performance had already impressed.
The restart was quickly back under yellow again on lap 167 for Brad Keselowski hitting the wall which ended up scattering a number of other cars: Regan Smith got turned around but avoided major damage, while Montoya, Hamlin, Newman and McMurray all managed to squeeze through and stay out of trouble and only Joey Logano ended up with any real damage as a result. Racing was back under way with 30 laps to go, and Bayne took up with David Ragan while Kyle saved a slide and got into an alliance with Clint Bowyer who was still feeling the departure of Jeff Burton earlier in the race. The duo were soon in a pitched battle with the pairing of Newman and Hamlin for the lead.
Lap 182 saw the 14th caution of the afternoon, which started when Kasey Kahne had a tyre go down which put him straight into the wall. If that wasn't enough, Carl Edwards then ran over debris which proved to be the Kahne's former brake rotor and had to head for pit road, while Jamie McMurray was also ruled out of contention when he dropped a cylinder and lost power and speed.
With 15 laps to go, Newman and Hamlin took point in the lead once more, this time finding that their main competition was coming from a new hook-up between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart. As the laps ticked down, it was all getting very close at the front as the now-settled ad hoc race teams of Earnhardt/Stewart, Bowyer/Kyle Busch, Newman/Hamlin, Smith/Kurt Busch and Bayne/David Ragan formed the 10-car pack up in front that was just waiting for someone - anyone - to make a decisive break for it. If anyone could, without pushing too hard and making mistake.
Considering his wins in both his previous Daytona outings in the 2011 speedweek, it was surprising that it was Kurt Busch who should be involved in the first error among the leaders, turning Regan Smith on lap 197 to bring out the 15th caution which also saw Clint Bowyer sustain heavy damage in the fall-out. Denny Hamlin needed to take to pit road for fresh tyres, and as the cars came around for their next restart - the first attempt at a green-and-chequered finish - Dale Earnhardt Jr and Kyle Busch also realised that the most recent caution had left them with tyres going down and they had to dive for pit road as well. Suddenly it was a case of which cars were not only left running, but who had their drafting partners still anywhere near up to speed. And the last pair standing was David Ragan and Trevor Bayne.
No one thought that it was going to be a simple two-lap dash to the finish, and indeed it wasn't: when the green flag came out, Ragan moved across as soon as he dared to secure the lead position, but it proved to be too
soon and he was black flagged for changing lanes before the finish line; and further back, Robby Gordon got loose and went into a spin that should have been unsavable, but a massive amount of opposite lock and a truck load of driver skill kept him somehow pointing the right direction. A full spin could have taken out half the field, but as it was the near-accident still caused the cars immediately behind him to collide and wreck: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the worst of it, while Ryan Newman went into the wall and collected Martin Truex Jr. for good measure.
With David Ragan heading to pit road to serve his black flag penalty, suddenly Trevor Bayne found himself in the lead. But a win was by no means a done-deal yet: he was being warned to save fuel, and he was without any of the drivers he'd been helping all afternoon, while behind him the more experienced drivers Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Mark Martin and Juan Montoya were just itching to take the race win.
The cavalry arrived in the form of Bobby Labonte, who took up with Bayne and pushed him for all he was worth. And it was enough: with the car as fast and stable as the #21 had been all afternoon, and with Bayne managing to keep his cool and still make absolutely no mistakes, the final two laps flew past. First the white flag, then the chequered - and Bayne was still in front, speeding into the record books just one day after his 20th birthday. No one could believe it, least of all Bayne himself: "Are you kidding me? Are you kidding
There will be some who say that Bayne was gifted the win by the woes of others; but if there's any element of truth to that, how amazing is it that someone in only his second Sprint Cup run could manage to draft so long and so well without a single mistake, and manage to stay clear of all the problems that befell so many?
As Bayne celebrated, his team - the Woods Brothers - rightly shared in the triumph. Now only competing parti-time, it's the 98th Cup win for the team but been a long wait for the outfit of almost ten years since Elliott Sadler scored their last win at Bristol in March 2001; and their first Daytona 500 victory since 1976. And with this driver, what a way to come back to victory road!Full race results