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Caraviello: Behind Bayne, Woods turn improbability to reality

February 21, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Caraviello: Behind Bayne, Woods turn improbability to reality

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The low point was three years ago at this very place, when the Wood Brothers failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 for the first time in more than four decades. They were outside the top 35 in driver points, they lost a gear in pole qualifying, and they didn't finish high enough in their qualifying event to make the sport's biggest race. It felt, team co-owner Eddie Wood said, like somebody had died. Walking around the garage area afterward, other competitors would drop their gazes rather than look him in the eye.

"Until you go through it," he said, "you can't put it into words."

"He reminds me of the great ones. He will be a great one. I told somebody the other day that I felt like he just might be the next big deal, and I think he is."

--EDDIE WOOD

For a proud organization that predates NASCAR itself, it was a devastating moment, and a precursor to a season of struggle that the historic outfit barely survived. What a contrast that was to Sunday, when generations of the Wood family could be found in Victory Lane wearing smiles on their faces as big around as Daytona International Speedway, standing amid fluttering confetti on the biggest stage in stock-car racing, basking alongside a baby-faced driver and a gold-numbered race car that somehow, unthinkably and amazingly, had combined to claim the Great American Race.

"Are you kidding me? What?" 20-year-old Trevor Bayne asked incredulously over the radio after holding off a charging Carl Edwards to win the 53rd running of the Daytona 500. Everyone else in attendance, all 182,000 of them, were surely asking themselves the same question. It wasn't just that this unheralded driver from Knoxville, Tenn., making not just his Daytona debut but only his second Sprint Cup start ever, had somehow outfoxed and outran the best the sport had to offer on a brilliant afternoon that offered both lead changes and accidents with abundance. It was that he did it in that No. 21, the one with the glittering digits that David Pearson made famous, for a revered organization that most thought would never reach this plateau ever again.

Are you kidding me? They aren't attempting a full schedule, haven't since 2008. They hadn't won in nearly a decade, since Elliott Sadler made his tires last forever at Bristol in the spring of 2001, and had been serious contenders only a few times since then. They've relocated, reorganized, and rethought the entire way they approach competing on NASCAR's premier series, where these days the big guns from the sponsor-rich super teams leave most everyone else fighting for the crumbs. And then there they are, the timeless Wood Brothers, behind a car built by Jack Roush and a driver plucked from who knows where, crying and hugging in a Victory Lane they last saw in 1976.

Richard Petty stopped by, his omnipresent cowboy hat replaced by a Ford cap, one legend offering congratulations to another. Roush, of course, was there, as was Edwards. And David Ragan, whose restart violation on the penultimate green-white-checkered attempt opened the door for Bayne. And Kurt Busch, who won everything this weekend except the main event. It was like a receiving line at a joyous wedding no one had expected to attend. In the middle of it all was Bayne, spun from one interview to another, a cell phone plastered next to his ear whenever he had an available nanosecond.

"If I try to put it into words," Bayne said, "I wouldn't be doing it any justice, that's for sure."

For the driver, of course, it's a game-changer. Now it's off for a media blitz that will elevate the effervescent and immediately likeable Bayne several rungs on the stardom ladder. With $1.4 million in the bank for Sunday's victory, his schedule will certainly change. Bayne is slated to compete in the first five Cup events as part of his limited campaign, but team co-owner Len Wood intimated that Martinsville and Texas will likely be added to the list. And surely the young, marketable winner of the Daytona 500 will vault to the top of every team's wish list when seats become available. For the Woods, the only thing more difficult than getting back to Victory Lane might be holding on to their driver for the years to come.

"He reminds me of the great ones," Eddie Wood said. "He will be a great one. I told somebody the other day that I felt like he just might be the next big deal, and I think he is."

Bayne's future, though, is another issue for another day. Sunday brought the kind of scene so many in NASCAR thought they'd never witness again -- Eddie and Len Wood, along with family and team patriarchs Glen (their father) and Leonard (their uncle), recording a stunning victory that will be celebrated both inside the garage and out. There is a certain unassuming nobility to the Wood Brothers, who don't necessarily have the crossover name recognition of their brethren the Pettys, and have occasionally struggled to hold on to sponsors as a result. But they always kept coming back to the race track, where it's not uncommon to see Leonard with his hands dirty or Eddie ferrying a part.

"I want to congratulate the Wood Brothers and the whole team there," said pole winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was in the mix to win until he suffered a flat tire near the end. "They did an awesome job and had a good car all weekend and that boy drove his heart out. I'm proud of them."

Sunday's victory marked the fifth time the Woods have won the Daytona 500, with Bayne joining Tiny Lund, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt and Pearson. "This is at the top of the stack now," Len Wood said, and to understand why requires an understanding of what the Woods went through to achieve it. That missed Daytona 500 in 2008 was only the most severe disappointment in a season full of them, one where the Woods found themselves trapped below the Mendoza line that is the top 35 rule and were never able to dig themselves out. Daytona, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Charlotte, Richmond, Bristol, Loudon -- the DNQs piled up one after another, at times rendering the friendly and candid Woods so crestfallen that they couldn't even talk about them.

"When you're in this business, and you don't win, it's not the happiest thing you've ever done," Leonard Wood said in Daytona's Victory Lane. "That's why this is so rewarding. It's so degrading to come down here and not run well."

It was May of 2008 when Edsel Ford, great-grandson of the automobile inventor and a member of Ford's board of directors, called Eddie Wood looking for a phone number. "Why haven't you called me? What's been going on?" asked Ford, whose Motorcraft brand is the team's longtime sponsor. As is his style, Eddie was painfully honest. The team had been missing so many races, he was ashamed to pick up the phone. Soon the Woods were on a plane to Michigan to meet with manufacturer executives, with the goal of straightening things out.

Ultimately, the answer seemed backward. In an age of merger mania, the Woods not only remained independent, they cut back to a limited schedule, taking the same approach they did during their glory days with Pearson -- who won races in bunches for the Woods, but never the title with them because he didn't complete the full slate. They began buying their cars from Roush and receiving help from Roush-Fenway engineering. Last season they showed some flashes of renewed competitiveness, posting four top-20s, among them a 17th-place run by Bayne at Texas that arched more than a few eyebrows.

And then, Daytona. Amid all the chaos over tandem drafting, all Bayne did was impress, emerging as the star of Speedweeks even before he won the 500. Jeff Gordon raved about the driver of the No. 21 car during Thursday's qualifying event, where Bayne proved exceptionally proficient in the draft. "He's a heck of a race car driver," Gordon said then. That performance ended in an accident, but gave the Woods hope. The Silver Fox himself, who was in Daytona on Sunday morning but didn't stick around for the end of the race, could see the potential.

"I thought he had a chance to win the thing," Pearson said by telephone as he drove home to Spartanburg, S.C. "I saw him run in the 150s."

Maybe Pearson, the living, breathing embodiment of so much Wood Brothers tradition and history, wasn't surprised. But everyone else? The Wood Brothers, in Victory Lane, following the Daytona 500? Ten years after their last win? With a driver behind the wheel who's a full-time competitor in the Nationwide Series, and not even eligible to accrue Cup points? Are you kidding me?

"It hasn't really sunk in yet," Eddie Wood said. "You know, we struggled so much just to make the Daytona 500, much less win it. It's so special."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.