Two of NASCAR's hottest 'idols,' newcomer Trevor Bayne and Indy-car's Danica Patrick. And they'll both be rookies at Bristol March 20th (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Chevrolet, through Dale Earnhardt Inc., had him a couple of years ago, and Chevy engineers saw him as a comer. But GM execs couldn't come up with sponsorship or a deal to keep him in the Chevy fold.
Then Toyota, through Michael Waltrip, had him, in a Nationwide ride last season. But Toyota/Waltrip discarded him in September, after telling him to start looking for another ride.
Bet ya there's a lot of second-guessing in the Toyota and Chevy camps now.
And Roush, the man who really put all this together, and paired Bayne with the Wood brothers, Len and Eddie, is looking Fat City, with a nice smile on his face.
Roush concedes that Bayne "has shown a maturity far beyond his years.
"He was able to do more than I thought he would be able to do at his level of experience. That was a pleasant surprise. I've had a lot of surprises with young drivers….not all of them pleasant."
The road to such sudden success has had a few blind corners.
To be blunt, Bayne was all but invisible most of last year on the Nationwide trail. He did win three poles, but not on Cup tracks during higher-profile double-header weekends. And his best finishes were thirds at St. Louis and Richmond. No wins. No splash.
But then he was just 19.
Now he's just turned 20, and after a remarkable SpeedWeeks – that really turned when Jeff Gordon, in Thursday's 150, made it a point to hook up with him – Bayne is an overnight sensation….who may find it hard to live up to his sudden reputation as NASCAR's newest 'teen idol,' a Justin Bieber for the sport.
Still, this is a key demographic for the sport, and NASCAR execs must be secretly gaga over this stroke of fortune.
Now what can Roush and the Woods and Ford do with Bayne this spring to keep the momentum going?
"When Michael Waltrip told Trevor last season that he should go out on the street and look around, because Waltrip didn't have anything for him in 2011, his people came to us and said 'Trevor is looking around, and if you'd like to have a conversation…..'" Roush was saying early Friday, as teams warmed up for Sunday's Phoenix 500, round two of the 36-race season.
"When you're looking at new talent and trying to judge it, you try to figure out how good his car and equipment is. And we under-rated Michael's car and his team, and thought Trevor was doing a better job with that equipment than he might. We decided Trevor could do better in our cars, and by-the-way he's already doing pretty good….
"So we made an agreement with him (late last season) going forward with him for several years, with the intention of running him for the Nationwide championship in 2011 – which we are. When Michael found out about that, he decided just to let him go immediately. So in order to protect his points position, we put together an ad hoc team for him, unsponsored, to finish out the year.
"This year there was no plan for him to be in one of my own Cup cars for 2011, because I don't have plans for him in one of my own cars for 2012 or 2013…..though I do have plans for him to be in a RoushFenway car by 2014.
"If that doesn’t work out, and everyone stays on board, I'll release him to drive for another Ford team.
Don't think this is the paint job Len and Eddie Wood had for Trevor Bayne when they unloaded Friday morning. But Bayne had some brake issues in Phoenix practice, scraping the wall and forced to a backup for Sunday's 500. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"When Edsel Ford and Eddie and Lenny Wood said they wanted to make a change in the driver for their car and run him 12 to 14 times, I said yes. That would be good.
"We had to run him in Texas last fall, to get NASCAR okay for him to run at Daytona this year.
"He ran a good race in Texas (finished 17th, on the lead lap). He passed more cars than anyone else in the field. He lost more spots than he should have on pit road, because the pit crew underachieved, but he made them up, and did very well. He didn't put a foot wrong. He made reasonable judgments on the track. And he was fast.
"Going into Daytona, we understood the Woods' reputation for building fast cars for Daytona, there was great expectation – without any realistic hope of him actually winning – he could be somewhere in the top-15 if he kept his nose clean.
"He makes good judgments in traffic on the track that are beyond his experience and his age."
The game plan now that Bayne has won Daytona? Will he be switching his NASCAR standing in order to get Cup points rather than Nationwide points, in order to have a shot at making the championship playoffs?
"Flying out here with the Woods, we talked," Roush said. "And if they can find sponsorship to run for the whole year, I will let him change the points thing.
"I don't have a sponsor for him or for Ricky Stenhouse in the Nationwide, but I have made the agreement to run them both the full season.
"But if Len and Eddie can find sponsorship for Trevor in Cup, and we can accelerate Trevor's learning curve, that would certainly be in our interests and Trevor's interests as well."
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
Just how hot a commodity is Trevor Bayne?
Bristol Motor Speedway is cranking up the marketing and bringing out the pom-poms to measure that.
Knoxville, Tn., will honor its new hometown hero, Trevor Bayne, Monday with the keys to the city, in part to promote the March 20th Jeff Byrd 500 at nearby Bristol Motor Speedway, just two hours up I-81.
Since the announcement of the 'homecoming rally' immense response has prompted officials to move the event to the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum, from Market Square downtown.
Bristol is a track Bayne knows well, though he's never run a Cup race there.
And Bristol boss Jerry Caldwell is heavily promoting the Bayne angle:
Monday in Knoxville fans can buy a 'Bristol Bayne Backer' ticket package for $100 -- including a ticket to the Jeff Byrd 500 and Saturday's 300, and a special tee-shirt, plus a special Q&A at Bristol race weekend. And those ticket-seats will be close enough that Bayne's cheering section will be easy to spot in the grandstands. (And if you can't make it to Knoxville, the offer is also available by phone to the track from 3 till 5 p.m. After 5 p.m. the Bayne Backer ticket package price will be raised to $121.
For more info: http://www.cityofknoxville.org/map