Monday, February 21, 2011

Daytona 500 Win a Blessing for Bayne, NASCAR

"Are you kidding me?!"

That's the sentiment not only expressed by practically all of NASCAR and it's fans (in a good way), it's also what NASCAR rookie Trevor Bayne said over the radio in just his second Sprint Cup start as he took the checkered flag in the fifty third Daytona 500.

In just his second start.

Bayne's victory ties a record for the fewest starts between a win with Jamie McMurray (last year's Daytona 500 winner), who won as a replacement driver for Sterling Marlin back in 2002.

Also, at 20 years and 1 day old, Bayne obliterated the previous record for youngest Daytona 500 winner, long held by Jeff Gordon, who won the Great American race back in 1997 at 25 years and 196 days old.

While not the youngest winner of a Sprint Cup race (Joey Logano holds that distinction at 19 years and 31 days when he won a rain-shortened race in June 2009), he has the same number of career victories as Logano does: one. But this one is going to be too remarkable to forget, for both him and the sport.

Perhaps due to his age and relative inexperience on NASCAR's top circuit, Bayne has every reason to act like, well... a kid at heart. He initially missed the road to Victory Lane after celebrating on the infield grass before an official waved him to the correct location. In post-race interviews, Bayne continued to express amazement about the events that had just transpired. Even Carl Edwards, who finished second behind Bayne, admitted that hearing Bayne's youthful exuberance over winning the race is enough closure for him. (If there's one thing Edwards can take solace in, it's the fact that he's the overall points leader because Bayne – a full-time Nationwide driver – is ineligible to earn points in the Sprint Cup series.)

Even more so, the conclusion to this year's Daytona 500 was exactly what NASCAR needed to get it's season off on the right foot. The last two Daytona 500s have been marred by rain (2009) and a major pothole (2010). This year's race topped both of them in television ratings yesterday, a definite plus in NASCAR's push to increase their exposure to a dwindling audience. Additionally, seeing new records for lead changes and caution flags at Daytona always makes for an intriguing race, especially for the common sports fan. At least for today, sports shows and radio across the country should put the NBA All-Star game and tight college basketball action yesterday on the backburner to discuss the excitement of going around in circles. Hey, it's a start.

There's also been some speculation that NASCAR needed a big push because of a lack of parity in its overall points system to crown a champion. Jimmie Johnson has won an unprecedented five consecutive Sprint Cup titles, which puts him second on the all-time list for championships (next to Richard Petty's seven). But it's how he's done it that's drawn the ire of many non-JJ fans. Winning five titles over the span of a career is one thing, but to just flat out dominate the sport over five consecutive years is, in a word, depressing. Heck, I've been sick of watching that goody two shoes Johnson win title after title after title after title after title. And I thought Jeff Gordon was bad for the sport back in the '90s (which goes to show y'all how Southern I am). But this time, I may be right. A new points system has simplified the process and should renew some national interest in what is primarily a Southern sport. Even if Bayne ends up being a one-trick pony, it's a remarkable way to start a new season and a young, bright career.

Indeed, a Daytona 500 win is a huge milestone. It's the Super Bowl of NASCAR and, next to a championship, is what every driver aspires to win. It can make hard luck drivers relevant (à la Derrike Cope, Michael Waltirp, and Ward Burton), give premier drivers a solid Hall-of-Fame legacy (e.g., Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty), and turn legendary drivers into household names (like Dale Earnhardt when he finally won in 1998). Or it can make you the most famous 20 year-old in the nation, and possibly the world. Look out Emma Watson, you've got some competition!

For racing fans old and new alike, this is the first wave of many big things to come from drivers born in the 1990s. It's almost hard to comprehend at this day and age, really. He's a guy that shaves just once a week and still watches the children's cartoon Rugrats. He was born near the end of the Gulf War. Heck, he wasn't alive during the Reagan administration or to see the Berlin Wall torn down. It wouldn't surprise me if he still eats sugary cereal for breakfast or has a soft spot in his heart for Pokémon.

Yet somehow, someway, he was able to hold off seasoned veterans – such as Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, and Bobby Labonte – to win the most prestigious race in all of NASCAR. That is poise and confidence you just can't manufacture.

But don't get me totally wrong. As a fellow 1991er, I feel like his victory is my victory, too, because if he can win the Daytona 500, then impossible is nothing for me, just another face in the crowd (for now). At the very least, I may have a new favorite driver.

Alright, enough about this face in the crowd, let's all bask in the joy of this newfound "kid" from Knoxville, Tennessee. Trevor Bayne and NASCAR have got a splendid moment on their hands.

It's a Cinderella story unlike any other in recent NASCAR history. And if the shoe fits (which it seems to do), then the sport better hope the stroke of midnight doesn't come until the checkered flag of the final race later this November. They're gonna need every second of it to regain respect and relevancy.

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