Bayne back to where it all started

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Trevor Bayne is the eternal optimist. Why wouldn't he be? Look at where life has taken him the last five months.

The fairy tale came true, and before he could grasp his good fortune, it almost all disappeared.

He went from the top of the NASCAR world, a place no one expected him to be at age 20, to wondering if his racing career was over and whether his life was in danger.

Now Bayne is back where it all began, healthy, happy and hungry to show everyone he's still the talented young driver fans fell in love with back in February when he won the Daytona 500.

"We've had a lot of other stuff happen that kind of slowed us down a little on that excitement train," Bayne said. "While I was out sick I got to watch a lot of races. I've got a new appreciation for what I get to do. Not everybody gets to go drive race cars and be as fortunate as I am."

Bayne takes nothing for granted now, not that he ever was the ungrateful type. If you're looking for the textbook example of the all-American boy, Bayne is your guy.

He is so syrupy sweet that you easily could take a cynical view and think he's too good to be true. Bayne doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and doesn't curse. He has an infectious smile and an unshakeable positive nature. I doubt he ever even jaywalks.

But Bayne is the real deal, on and off the track. Just being around him makes you feel like this crazy world in which we live is going to be OK after all as long as there are young people like him still in it.

Bayne also is a deeply religious kid. No doubt his faith served him well when he was lying in a hospital bed at the Mayo Clinic, wondering if his mysterious illness would change his path just when his racing career was on a roll.

It all started at Texas in April, when Bayne thought he suffered a spider bite. Take it from me, someone who lived most of my life in Texas, that's not an unusual occurrence.

But Bayne's symptoms continued to worsen. He was tired all the time, highly unusual for a 20-year-old in great shape. And he began to have problems with blurred vision and depth perception, along with being constantly nauseated.

This was no spider bite. Something was seriously wrong.

Bayne's family, along with his employers at Roush Fenway Racing and the Wood Brothers team, didn't want to take any chances. Bayne was sent to the Mayo Clinic for extensive tests.

Easy answers weren't forthcoming. In fact, no one involved in Bayne's life was saying anything for a long time, other than he was continuing to undergo medical tests.

That led to increased speculation and a few wild rumors about the severity of Bayne's condition. Was his racing career over? Was his life in danger?

Trevor Bayne We really wanted to run for that [Nationwide] championship this year. Now we're too far back to be in contention. That's the biggest disappointment to me.

-- Trevor Bayne on missing five races due to illlness

No one outside his inner circle knew the answers, and the people close to him weren't saying. Finally, doctors diagnosed a rare inflammatory condition and treated him accordingly.

Bayne gradually got better, did a couple of test sessions on the track and returned to racing in June. But doctors still don't know for sure what happened or why it happened.

"It's kind of scary when you don't know," Bayne said. "But then again, I don't really have to know as long as I'm getting better, and I am. To me, it's like we just keep digging and hopefully it doesn't come back."

Eddie and Len Wood didn't have the sponsorship for Bayne to run a full Cup schedule this season, but the illness cost him five starts in the Nationwide Series for Roush.

"We really wanted to run for that championship this year," Bayne said. "Now we're too far back to be in contention. That's the biggest disappointment to me."

His first Cup race after his return came two weeks ago at Michigan. He finished 16th, more than respectable considering everything he endured.

Now here he is, back at Daytona, where he showed miraculous things really can happen. No one would have predicted a young driver in his first Daytona 500, racing for the storied Wood Brothers team that hadn't come close to winning in years, could finish first in NASCAR's biggest event.

"It's still awesome," Bayne said. "I've got stacks of pictures and flags and autograph requests at my house to remind me of it every day, so it's still really cool and I think it'll take a long time for that excitement to wear completely off."

Bayne was an overnight sensation, bringing more attention to NASCAR than any other winner could have other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"It's always cool to see someone new in the sport have success," said driver Jeff Burton. "It got people to say, 'Wow, a rookie won the Daytona 500.' That's good for our sport."

Not just any rookie. Bayne is a PR person's dream, an "awe-shucks" type with teen-idol looks. He received national media attention after his Daytona win and became an instant hero.

"He's a super kid and I was very happy for him,'' Clint Bowyer said. "I don't know if he paid his dues quite yet, but it was a huge win."

It was one of the biggest moments for NASCAR in a long time. Bayne proved a quick study in the unusual tandem-style racing that was all new for a restrictor-plate race at Daytona.

Drivers quickly realized they should forget about his rookie status because Bayne was one of the best at pushing a partner to the front. In the end, it was Carl Edwards who pushed Bayne to the victory.

"I've got to go there with the same mindset I had before," Bayne said. "Just making all the laps and being around at the end."

Bayne won't have the same car he drove in February. Every Daytona 500-winning car goes on display for a year at Daytona USA.

"I'm gonna dress up like a ninja and go steal my car out of the museum," Bayne said, chuckling. "But we do have a car that is just as good. In the wind tunnel, the car was very similar."

Bayne doesn't even have a guaranteed spot in the field. He'll have to qualify on speed Friday afternoon in the impound race. Eddie Wood isn't concerned.

"We're going to use most of the practice sessions to get ready to race," Wood said. "We're not going to sacrifice our race setup for qualifying."

Bayne knows a lot of things are different this time, good and bad.

"The expectations are different, and that's the hardest part," he said. "Keeping that in check and not going there thinking, 'Man, I've got to win this thing,' and then drive too hard and get myself in trouble to where I crash.

"But it's also better this time because I have drivers wanting to work with me now. I've had a few Cup drivers text me and ask if they can put me in their radio. Last time I was sitting on pit road for 30 minutes waiting to find out if someone would work with me. Hopefully we'll have a shot to win it again."

The odds are against it, of course. Maybe his glorious moment was a one-race fluke, a product of this new form of plate racing where almost anyone can go to Victory Lane.

Maybe not. Maybe his remarkable victory at Daytona was a glimpse into his future. And maybe his almost unexplainable recovery from such a puzzling illness is part of it.

Two months ago, no one knew if Bayne would be back at Daytona this week. He is back, and he truly believes the fairy-tale ending can happen again.

Maybe it can. Like Bayne, there's a little optimism in all of us.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.