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.