Full-time Nationwide engagement, engagement to girlfriend start off 2013 season
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There among NASCAR veterans who roll their eyes and bristle at the very thought of preseason testing -- bored with the monotony, thinking of all the better things they could be doing -- is 21-year-old Trevor Bayne, happily climbing in and out of his race car and walking about the Daytona International Speedway garage with a perpetual grin on his face and can’t-miss gleam in his eye.
All with good reason.
Bayne was among the fastest in Preseason Thunder test sessions, turning his first laps of the season driving at the track that made the 2011 Daytona 500 winner a household name and gave NASCAR a bona fide, next-generation star.
"This (season) will be the bridge he's been looking for."
-- Eddie Wood, Wood Brothers Racing
When Bayne returns to Daytona for NASCAR Speedweeks next month, he will challenge for his first season title (with one team), competing for the 2013 Nationwide Series championship driving Jack Roush’s two-time series champion No. 6 Ford while continuing with the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford part-time in the Sprint Cup Series.
And then there’s the engagement to his longtime girlfriend Ashton just before Christmas.
Bayne invited her snowboarding outside Asheville, N.C., and had the proposal planned down to the last detail -- including having a friend there to video the whole thing.
On a late afternoon run down the slopes, he went just ahead of the more inexperienced Ashton and waited for her on his knees in the snow about halfway down the mountain. A friend waited nearby pretending to be taking photos of the two snowboarding.
A little earlier, Ashton had told Bayne she was ready to call it a day, so he had to convince her to make one more run with him.
“When she got down halfway, I already had one foot undone (from the snowboard) so I could get on one knee,’’ Bayne said excitedly. “She fell down right in front of me and when she stood up, I did it. She didn’t expect it at all.’’
And if anyone knows about expectations, it’s Bayne, who has endured an assorted share of them.
“I feel like everything is going as smooth as it possibly can right now,’’ Bayne said while grabbing a quick lunch between sessions Friday at Daytona. “There’s always bumps and things you don’t expect, so many things that can happen in a season. But after the last two years we’ve had going on with all the highs and the lows, this year feels like the most normal -- exciting and good stuff happening.’’
And who could begrudge Bayne from feeling like that?
After claiming the sport’s most important trophy in his first try, the then-20-year-old was on top of the world. His shocking underdog win endeared him to current NASCAR fans and he won over plenty more new ones with his good looks, genuineness and positive energy during a national media blitz after the Daytona 500.
Then, just as shockingly, three months later Bayne lay in a hospital bed suffering from a still undiagnosed illness that left him hospitalized for more than a month and put his promising career and his charmed life on pause.
He returned to compete later that year. But the following season in 2012, team owner Roush could only fund one full-time Nationwide car and the team wanted to let Ricky Stenhouse Jr. defend his 2011 title -- which he did before handing the car over to his good friend Bayne this year.
“I feel like I’ve been through a whole career already with all the high and low,’’ said Bayne. “But God’s never given me more than I can handle, and I’ve grown so much through all this. I’m at this point where I am so appreciative.
“You win like that and, not consciously, but as a race car driver you start to expect stuff (opportunities) and everybody is there to support you and build you up. And now we’ve been through the part where we struggled and I still have people behind me. And that showed me a lot. ... Like, when Jack Roush sent his plane to fly me back and forth to the hospital to take care of me. When the Wood Brothers left my name over the door when Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) drove for me at Charlotte. They all stood behind me.’’
Bayne says he is fully recovered from the illness. In fact, he just competed in his first triathlon, finishing second in his age group and 38th overall out of more than 400 competitors.
While there still is no definitive diagnosis, doctors have told him it could have been Lyme disease from a tick bite he had. It could have been exhaustion from the round-the-clock commitments and travel he had after winning the Daytona 500.
“I never said no to an interview or an autograph,’’ Bayne recalls of that exhilarating but frantic time.
It could have been a combination of several factors, but so far it has been an isolated one-time incident. And a severe lesson in the turn of fate.
“You just felt so bad for him because it’s like, one day it’s all working out for you and then you get sick and you really don’t know what’s wrong,’’ said Bayne’s Sprint Cup Series car owner Eddie Wood, leader of the sport’s legendary Wood Brothers Racing team. “I think not knowing what was wrong was the hard part. Anytime you’re sick or your loved one is sick, you always think the worst in the back of your mind. It’s human nature.
“Fortunately, everything is fine now and he’s got everything in front of him now. It’s a good time for him. It’s just all-around good. ... This (season) will be the bridge he’s been looking for.’’
And no one could be more eager to cross it.
As successful as Bayne has been in the race car -- he won a Nationwide race in 2011 at Texas Motor Speedway -- it’s hard to believe his ride with Roush will be his first true go at a championship.
“If you had told me I’d go from winning the Daytona 500 to not having a full-time ride to not running any Nationwide races ...," Bayne said, his voice trailing off and his face incredulous. “I kinda feel like I’m starting over again in Nationwide, going back to the full-time season I had almost in 2010. It’s crazy to think about that. But I’m excited. I get to go re-prove myself. We’ve already done it once and we can go do it again, and we’ll be back on the map, you could say.’’
That his team owners Wood and Roush have stood behind him through these turbulent and unpredictable few years is a testament to Bayne’s character, talent and potential, they say.
“We made the commitment to Trevor and he’s been patient and waited for us to do that,’’ Roush said. “We’ve got the team still in tact that carried Ricky Stenhouse to championships and they are anxious to see what they can do with Trevor.
“Three years ago we started Trevor and Ricky together. Their approach to racing and their potential is nearly identical. They are great young human beings and extremely talented and motivated to drive race cars. ... This year it’s Trevor’s turn.’’
Even though Bayne knew the opportunity that awaited him in 2013, it was a trying situation in 2012 to scale back expectations and make the most of the six Nationwide races he did compete in. Having something to look forward to -- a reclaimed chance -- made all the difference.
“I remember that first day after we announced it, (crew chief) Mike (Kelley) texted me and said, ‘Hey man, we’ve won races with all these guys and we’re going to win races with you, too. This is your team now. It’s our team and we’re behind you all the way,’" Bayne recalled.
“To get that kind of text meant a lot. You could have a crew chief that was like, ‘OK, this is how we did it, Ricky was this way and you’ve got to fill in these shoes.’ But Mike’s like, ‘This is your team. We have the ability and we’re gonna go do it. We’re behind you.’ And that means a lot to me because it makes me feel like I’m already a part of it and get to be a part of leading the ship.’’
Wood said if his team can get additional funding he’d like to run Bayne full-time in the Cup series as well.
The more time behind a wheel the better. And after all the glory and trials Bayne has experienced in the last two years, he’s still only going to turn 22 years old on Feb. 19, a week before the season-opening Daytona 500 -- the race where it all started for Bayne.
“What’s the biggest permanent change for me since winning the Daytona 500?’’ Bayne said, repeating the interview question and pausing to think. “The biggest change to my life is that I still have something to talk about two years later. Not many wins do you have that you’re still talking about two years later. That was awesome but unfortunately that was two years ago. I need to get something else to talk about; I need to win another race.
“It’s cool that everyone always wants to congratulate you,’’ he said flashing that smile again. “But you want to go get the next one for them to talk about.’’
And now, at last, he has the chance.