Trevor Bayne astonished the sports world—and himself—on Feb. 20, 2011, when just one day after his 20th birthday and during only his second Sprint Cup start, he won the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious race.
Today, the defending champion is preparing for the 2012 running of the Great American Race scheduled for Feb. 26 at Daytona International Speedway. American Profile recently caught up with Bayne, who became the youngest Daytona 500 champion in history while driving for legendary Wood Brothers Racing, NASCAR’s oldest continually operating team. He reflected on winning the Super Bowl of NASCAR, his plans for the future, and the illness that temporarily stalled his meteoric rise.
American Profile: What does it mean for a driver to win the Daytona 500?
Trevor Bayne: If you could choose one race to win in your lifetime, I’m sure everybody would choose that race. Daytona is the most prestigious. It’s where it all started.
AP: Growing up, did you dream of winning the Daytona 500?
TB: For sure. I remember driving by the front stretch on the way to the go-kart tracks as a kid when I used to race at Daytona’s Municipal Stadium. It seemed like we were driving for two hours and we were still on the front stretch. I looked at that huge track and thought, one day I’m going to race there.
AP: When you got in the car at Daytona last year, did you have any idea that you might win?
TB: No. That wasn’t on the menu! Obviously we go to the track to win every race, but at that point I was still a little starstruck by the Cup series. I’d only run one race, and I remember thinking how cool it was to be on the same track with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and all those guys. So when we qualified third, I kept thinking it would be so crazy if we finished top 3. When we won the race, it was a complete shock.
AP: Was it true that you had difficulty finding your way to Victory Lane?
TB: A little bit. I was coming down to Victory Lane waving at everybody in the stands. I felt like I was in a parade. I drove right past the entrance and had to back up and go in. It’s a little tricky to find.
AP: What was the best thing about winning that race?
TB: To see the Wood Brothers back in Victory Lane after not winning a race in almost 10 years and to be a part of it was so gratifying. Our guys worked so hard on that race car. To see how God had aligned it all from the beginning and seeing how all the moving parts fit together, that was the coolest thing.
AP: Were you familiar with the history of the Wood Brothers when you joined the team?
TB: I was a race fan growing up so I knew about them but not the depth of their history. It was like “Wood Brothers 101” the first day I was on the job. [Team owners] Eddie and Len Wood have a catalog memory. They know every driver, every race. And [team co-founder] Leonard Wood is such an innovator in our sport, one of the guys who first choreographed the pit stop. What’s crazy is the way that his mind works. He doesn’t really blueprint anything or plan it out. He just goes to work. Then, a few weeks ago, I watched the Glen Wood documentary for his induction in the [NASCAR] Hall of Fame and realized once again their impact and how insane it is to be a part of this team.
AP: What was the most challenging thing about those first couple of weeks following your Daytona 500 win?
TB: Besides going to school or work, I had never been on a tight schedule. Now it was like, at 8 in the morning you’ve got this call, then you’re doing this show, then this. The hardest part was coming up with new things to say!
AP: Winning that soon—is it a blessing or a curse?
TB: It depends. Obviously, if you put pressure on yourself to win every race, then it’s a curse because nobody can do that. For me, it’s been a huge blessing because our team has been shown that they can win. I’ve been shown that I can win in the [Sprint] Cup series. Then we won a Nationwide race in Texas in November. Wins are always blessings if you use them right. If you let yourself get built up and think you’re the man and don’t stay humble, then you’ll get knocked down real quick.
AP: In April 2011, you were hospitalized with nausea, fatigue and vision impairment following an insect bite. How are you feeling?
TB: I’m good to go now. I think that was a side effect of the huge media tours we were doing for months in a row. I was just worn out. My immune system was low, and something as small as a tick took me down! But I’m 100 percent now. I just have to make sure I stay hydrated and rested.
AP: While recovering from your illness, which you said doctors eventually diagnosed as Lyme disease, you missed six races. At any point, were you afraid you’d never race again?
TB: I never really thought about that. The doctors told me I was going to get better. They were very positive. I had the ability to race because God gave it to me, and if he wanted me to race again then I’d be back. That was a rough five weeks, though, sitting around watching people do what I love to do. Especially when you’re coming up to your prime and really building on your career to get some momentum. We were four points out of the [Nationwide] Championship lead, and it knocked us out. But that illness also taught me to respect and appreciate what I do a lot more.
AP: Where do you keep your Daytona 500 trophy?
TB: In my old bedroom at the house where I grew up in Knoxville, Tenn.
AP: What are your plans for the 2012 season?
TB: Right now, we plan to run 13 Cup races. We’re trying to add more. But that’s a good number for Wood Brothers Racing being a single-car team with limited funding. Motorcraft, Quick Lane and Ford do a great job of funding those races fully, but if we go past that number, it stretches us kind of thin. We want to do it right. On the Nationwide side, we’re working hard on a sponsorship deal.
AP: How will you approach this year’s Daytona 500?
TB: I think it worked out pretty good with our approach last year!