Bayne rockets way to NASCAR stardom

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It was the greatest Daytona 500 since -- well, since the Wood Brothers last were in Victory Lane here.

That was 35 years ago, when the grizzled Silver Fox, David Pearson, tangled with Richard Petty in the final turn and drove the Woods' wrecked Mercury across the line at maybe 30 mph in the infield grass.

This was vastly different but no less electrifying.

Sunday a star was born -- no, rocketed to the pinnacle of NASCAR, sending the whole sport hurtling forward into its storied past.

"I think the world," said runner-up Carl Edwards, "is going to like him a lot."

Trevor Bayne, who turned 20 on Saturday and is the youngest winner ever of the Daytona 500, drove it as well, as coolly, as masterfully as Pearson ever could have … or A.J. Foyt or Cale Yarborough or Tiny Lund, who also won this race for the Wood Brothers.

Maybe better.

Who knows whether Pearson, Foyt, Yarborough or Lund could have adapted to the chaos of the current NASCAR rules on top of a drastic resurfacing of Daytona International Speedway that forced the most bizarre racing ever here, tandems, two-by-two, tango partners all day long.

Bayne mastered all the madness of a race that produced a record 74 lead changes among 22 different drivers, and a record 16 cautions as the tandem racing took its toll in wrecks and blown engines.

He danced with many partners with impeccable grace, never missed a step, and then changed into a last-lap brawler to hold off a herd of pursuers off the final turn and down to the checkered flag.

Just how young is 20 years and one day for a Daytona 500? Jeff Gordon was the previous youngest winner, at 25 years and six months.

Might this be the next Gordon, the next Jimmie Johnson, the next Dale Earnhardt?

Any or all of the above.

Or more.

Trevor Bayne of Knoxville, Tenn., looks that brilliant, that quickly.

And yet humble.

"I'm just glad I got to be the guy sitting behind the wheel for these guys to get this win," Bayne said.

Don't you dare say he was handed a great ride out of the gate, as detractors say of Gordon and Johnson.

Trevor Bayne I'm just glad I got to be the guy sitting behind the wheel for these guys to get this win.

-- Trevor Bayne

Bayne won this race with a long-suffering, struggling, has-been team that hadn't won a Cup race of any kind since he was 10, in 2001, and had only five wins in the past 27 years.

"How cool is it to see the Wood Brothers back in Victory Lane?" were some of the first words he uttered once he got there -- he hadn't known the way.

"He has tremendous awareness in the car," said Eddie Wood, leader of the team's second generation. "The great ones are like that. And he will be the great one.

"I told someone the other day he might be the next big deal," Wood continued. "He will be."

No empty talk here, for a man who spent his boyhood and youth around Foyt, Yarborough, Pearson and Lund.

Already, "He knows how to do this," Wood said. "I was talking with Richard Petty the other day, and we decided he doesn't know how to do it the wrong way."

A gauge of the magnitude of the moment was that Petty, long the Wood team's archrival, joined co-patriarchs Glen and Leonard Wood in Victory Lane.

Pearson had spoken with Bayne on Sunday morning but had headed home as the race started.

"I told him," Pearson said in a statement, "to keep his head straight and not to do anything crazy."

Check. Not a single wild rookie move all race, and no wild move at all until he broke from the late push he got from Bobby Labonte and drove to the bottom of the track on his own, to hold off Edwards and third-place David Gilliland.

"I told him to stay relaxed. That's the thing. Stay relaxed."

Check. Bayne was as relaxed as Pearson used to be when he chewed gum slowly while gunning for a win. Scientists once determined that Pearson's heart rate actually slowed in the heat of a race.

Pearson got the Woods' last Daytona 500 win as a savvy veteran.

Bayne got this one in only his second Cup race, the first being at Texas last fall.

"Seems like he just has massive talent," said Edwards, who competed with Bayne last year in the Nationwide series. "He hasn't done anything dumb. That's hard for us drivers sometimes. He's done a really good job of keeping his composure. He just hasn't made any mistakes … He drives like a veteran."

Edwards, asked if such a win by such a youthful, effervescent persona in such a whirlwind of a race might help sagging NASCAR TV ratings, cracked: "Ya think?"

"We have races like we had today with a new winner, up-and-coming guy in the sport that's tied to so much history with the Wood Brothers.

"This is as good as it gets, guys," Edwards concluded.

There may be a full season of building expectations for Bayne, as he has committed to run the Nationwide series for points this year and is scheduled to run only 17 Cup races for the Woods this season.

The Cup schedule is likely to expand as corporate sponsors chase the revitalized Wood-Bayne bandwagon.

But Bayne has already "checked the box," as drivers call committing to only one of NASCAR's three national series to accumulate points toward a season championship.

"I wish I could talk [NASCAR president] Mike Helton into letting me change the boxes," Bayne said. "Maybe I can, so, Mike, if you're listening …"

NASCAR, known for changing mechanical rules in midstream, might do well to consider some human flexibility this time.

With a whole sport in malaise, better to ride the rocket ship back up now than to wait until next year.

There was the Petty-Pearson wreck of '76, "The Fight" between Cale Yarborough and Bobby and Donnie Allison of '79. There was the memorable moment of Earnhardt's win on his 20th try in '98.

But this one promises to lift NASCAR as high or higher, just when it is needed most.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.