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