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Inside NASCAR: Woods, Bayne in similar situation to a year ago

February 22, 2012, David Caraviello,

Despite Daytona victory, Woods, Bayne in similar situation to a year ago

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There is a timelessness about the Wood Brothers racing team that's as enduring as the gold numbers on the side of the No. 21 car. After Trevor Bayne won last season's Daytona 500, many of the faces in Victory Lane were the same as those who celebrated the last time the organization won NASCAR's biggest race 35 years earlier. For decades the franchise operated out of its ancestral home in Stuart, Va., moving to the sport's Charlotte hub only when competitive factors demanded it. The team principals still bear the last name of those who founded it, drawing a direct link between the high banks of Daytona and the beech tree that's long stood over the family homestead.

That's just how it is with the Wood Brothers -- the more things change, the more things stay the same. A large part of that, like the team's character and an old-school ethos evident in the throwback uniforms the No. 21 crew is wearing these Speedweeks, is by design. The Woods don't just celebrate their history, to a large degree they are defined by it. But as the organization returns to Daytona International Speedway one year after shocking the world, some of those constants are due to factors beyond their control. For all the attention Bayne and the Wood Brothers earned after winning last year's Daytona 500, they each approach Sunday's event in much the same situation they were in a season ago.

"When I won the 500, in the back of my mind I was thinking, I'm set now. ... But it just shows how tough it is."


Just as they did in 2011, the Woods are running a partial schedule this year. Bayne is a burgeoning star still without a full-time ride; even his Nationwide Series campaign with Roush Fenway Racing has been reduced to a limited slate. Sponsorship has proven difficult to find, even for a young, charismatic driver and an organization whose legacy tugs at race fans' hearts. Bayne is now a household name, the winning No. 21 car from a season ago sits in the Daytona museum, and a Harley J. Earl trophy rests on the mantle. But beyond that, even for the reigning Daytona 500 champions, not much else seems to have changed.

"When I won the 500, in the back of my mind I was thinking, I'm set now," Bayne said. "We call it a 'lifer.' Once you won a Cup race, you used to be a lifer. But it just shows how tough it is."

Anything seemed possible on that glorious February afternoon a year ago, when Bayne unthinkably won the Daytona 500 in his second Sprint Cup start to snap a 10-year winless skid for the Wood Brothers and stamp himself as NASCAR's brightest young star. It was an irresistible combination of old and new, all of it wrapped up in the smiling face of a photogenic 20-year-old whose effervescent personality, self-awareness and bedrock faith helped make him irresistible to the media. It seemed only a matter of time before the sponsors came calling, and the Wood Brothers were once again running full time. The pieces were all in place -- it was only a question of how long it would take them to fit together.

"At the time, you thought, now that you've won this race, you probably can find more sponsorship," team co-owner Eddie Wood said. "And we had a lot of things that came about. It was just, nothing really fit."

Despite tough economic times, the Wood Brothers strive to remain true to its brand and longtime partners. (Getty Images)

So here they are, one year later, in much the same situation they were in before that emotional celebration in Daytona's Victory Lane. For now, the Wood Brothers are slated to run at least 12 events on the Sprint Cup slate. Bayne will be in the car for those, as well as a part-time schedule for Roush in the Nationwide Series. The Woods have continued support from Ford in the form of its Motorcraft brand, as well as Quick Lane auto-service centers, but still need to fill gaps if they hope to add more events. Ultimately, the Wood Brothers seem likely to end up running fewer races than the 18 it contested last season -- something that would have been difficult to believe a season ago, among all that fluttering confetti and spraying champagne.

All about fit

In fairness, they did everything right. Beaten down by too many years of struggling to stay inside the top 35 and too many Fridays where they were forced to head home early, the Woods heeded the advice of Ford executives and scaled back to a part-time operation, focusing primarily on those events where they knew they could qualify on speed and make an impact. They forged an alliance with Roush, they outsourced cars and engines, they acquired a shop in metro Charlotte. In an era of mergers and consolidations, their plan bucked conventional wisdom, but it laid the groundwork for their Daytona 500 triumph.

Yet Eddie and Len Wood, who today control the organization their father and uncle founded, couldn't control the economy. A stubborn recession and a sluggish recovery have taken their toll on the NASCAR garage area, leading to a rife of sponsorship losses, and in a some cases, programs shutting down altogether. By going small, the Woods successfully insulated themselves from the downturn. Then came Daytona, and their biggest moment in decades. Some drivers race for a whole career off the cachet of a Daytona 500 victory, but the Woods were unable to parlay it into a full season.

Wood Brothers

2012 Schedule
3Las Vegas
--All-Star Race

"In economic times like they are, I'm not surprised," Eddie Wood said. "Because everybody in NASCAR is chasing money, and a lot of times they're chasing the same money. And right now, there doesn't seem to be enough to go around to everyone. I feel fortunate to have what we have. We are fortunate to have what we have. ... It's just a hard time to find money right now for everyone. I'm not sure there's not a lot of people trying to make something out of nothing, and you're not going to catch us trying to do that. What we're going to do is totally real. It will be a limited schedule, but we're going to do it like we should."

Too many factors lined up against them. Not only did the economy make the sponsorship search more difficult, but Bayne found himself competing for backing against more accomplish names even within his own extended family. At Roush, Nationwide champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. still has inventory on his ride, as does Sprint Cup star Matt Kenseth. Some companies looking to spend money in NASCAR gravitated to more established drivers such as Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer. As popular and as talented as Bayne is, he found himself up against too much competition.

"You've got champions, let alone Daytona winners like Matt Kenseth with inventory available," said Zak Brown, founder of Just Marketing International, a marketing company that specializes in motorsports. "So when you do look at the sport, while the Trevor story is a great story, statistically speaking Matt Kenseth as an example is going to be a surer bet than Trevor Bayne. At the end of the day he won the biggest race you can win, but he's only won one race. So if I'm shopping on behalf of a sponsor, and Trevor Bayne is in the consideration set, but you have some guy with some things available like Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, who didn't have that big moment last year but are bigger than Trevor ... who are you going to bet on?"

* Bayne video: Reflects on Daytona 500 win | Key to Daytona 500

The Woods have a long association with Ford, whose Motorcraft brand is their primary sponsor this year. Any additional sponsors that are brought on board to fill out the season, Eddie Wood said, have to fit with Motorcraft. The Woods aren't the kind of team to add sponsors and races just to add them -- everything has to mesh together. In the wake of the Daytona 500, some sponsorship opportunities presented themselves, Eddie said, but they weren't what the team was looking for.

"It was a lot of small things that were probably just enough to get you in trouble," he said. "We're very respectful of Motorcraft and Quick Lane to not just do a deal with someone just to do one race. It's not really fair to those guys that have stood behind you all this time to dilute what they're doing unless it's the right deal. We're probably more careful than a lot of people would be about adding races. It's just got to all fit."

And not just the race team. "Of course, anybody we add, if we add a race or add multiple races, it's got to fit Ford Motor Company, too, because we're all kind of a family thing," said Wood, whose family has long been associated with Ford and its affiliated brands. "It's got to fit them and us, and we really haven't found any particular company to partner up with that fits both of us. We've had some good leads, things that got a fairly good ways down the road as far as happening, and didn't. But we're OK. The places we race ... we're going to treat them like they're the Daytona 500."

For now, that means 12 races, which is the number Motorcraft is backing. The Woods initially planned to run 14 last year, but used the $1.46 million in Daytona 500 winnings to extend their schedule to 18, hoping that enough funding would eventually come along to allow them to run the full Sprint Cup slate. It didn't, so they stuck to essentially their original plan. They didn't want to overextend themselves, turn in poor performances hurt by underfunding, and damage their changes of finding further sponsorship by coming to the race track when they shouldn't have.

Trevor Bayne took a show version of the Woods' No. 21, and traversed a portion of Daytona's old beach and road course. (Autostock)

Today, the hope is to run a limited schedule this season with an eye toward a full-time campaign in 2013. But of course, that all hinges on funding, and recent history has shown the Wood Brothers would rather be cautious than too ambitious. "We're not going to say we're going to do something and not be able to go do it," Eddie Wood said. "I'd rather stay on the low side, and then add something later. That way you're not creating an expectation you're not going to meet. We don't want to do that."

No second thoughts

The gravity of what he had achieved began to truly dawn on Trevor Bayne during a post-Speedweeks media blitz that included a trip to San Francisco. Ghirardelli Square was packed with NASCAR fans, something the new Daytona 500 champ didn't know existed in that part of California. Then Bayne went to Chicago, and discovered people camping in the snow outside his hotel, armed with photographs they hoped he would sign.

"I was like, how did these people already get pictures, and how did they stand out here knowing what hotel we're in?" he remembered. "NASCAR fans are avid."

Make no mistake about it, in motorsports circles Bayne had become a star, something that's been very evident this week in the run-up to the 2012 Daytona 500. The now 21-year-old Tennessee native has been everywhere -- from appearing on television repeatedly to driving his No. 21 car on the beach near Daytona to celebrate NASCAR's roots, and he's done it all in the same unassuming manner that everyone first became familiar with last February. His enthusiasm is genuine, his attitude is infectious. Being around him just makes you want to smile.

* Bayne helps NASCAR remember its past amid the sea and sand in Daytona | Watch

And yet, from a sponsorship perspective, those characteristics evidently haven't been enough. Bayne is as charismatic and as camera-friendly as it gets these days, the kind of young driver sponsors once couldn't snap up fast enough in the era ushered in by Jeff Gordon. Bayne enjoyed what everyone thought was the ideal career springboard in his Daytona 500 victory. But here he is now, facing part-time efforts this season on both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide tours, wondering when his full-time career at NASCAR's top levels will finally begin.

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"We think of ourselves as race car drivers, and that's what we want to do," Bayne said. "But that's the easiest part, because that's what comes natural. It's the rest of it, chasing sponsors, whatever it takes to be a race car driver -- that's what gives you survival in this sport. That's what I'm learning how to do, I guess."

Eddie and Len Wood, with assistance from Eddie's daughter Jordan, handle the sponsorship search at Wood Brothers. But Bayne has been active as well, with him and his family shaking corporate bushes whenever they can. He understands his role is more than driving the car. "We've become a business partner, trying to grow a brand for companies," he said. "We've become a representative for our team and all of our guys. We get to be [at] the forefront for our team, speak for all of them."

No question, Bayne wants to race full time. Not being able to race full time on the Nationwide tour is a blow to a driver who won a race in that series last year at Texas, and aimed to challenge friend and defending champion Stenhouse Jr. for the title. But Bayne has never once complained publicly about his situation, never once questioned why the sponsorship hasn't come through. When Penske Racing inquired about his availability for a full-time Sprint Cup ride in the No. 22 car after Kurt Busch left, Bayne referred them to Jack Roush -- with whom he is under contract -- and was comfortable with the decision to keep him where he was.

"I think he sees the big picture, because he's a pretty grown-up kid to be [21]," Eddie Wood said. "I'm sure he would like to be racing full time with Roush Fenway in the Nationwide Series right now; that hasn't worked out either. So when you look at the whole situation from a distance, you got what you've got, but at least you've got something. A lot of people and a lot of drivers right now don't have anything. A lot of teams don't have the backing they would like to have. I think he's kind of in the same boat we are, in that if we keep working hard and hopefully running well, maybe get another race, get some top-10s, and that one perfect match that may fit the Motorcraft [and] Quick Lane people, it may just happen."

Bayne echoes that same sentiment -- he'd rather be thankful for what he has than frustrated over what he doesn't. "How many guys are in our sport without funding and still able to do it?" he said. That gratefulness is understandable, given that Bayne missed five weeks this past spring due to what he now believes to be Lyme disease. The buzz from his Daytona 500 victory was still heavy in the air when he had to step out of the car because of a medical condition that required visits to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. "I don't think he really had time to absorb the thing, because he got sick right after the win," Eddie Wood said.

It was a difficult situation for everyone. In the immediate aftermath of the Daytona 500, Bayne struggled somewhat on the race track, and in retrospect he wonders if he was mentally drained from the media blitz that followed his big victory. Then, in April, he got sick and had to step out of the car, with Stenhouse filling in for him during one scheduled Sprint Cup start at Charlotte. It all combined to prevent Bayne from building on his breakthrough, but the driver doesn't go back and wonder about how different things might have been.

"I don't like thinking about that stuff. It's easy, it's dangerous to think like that ... and now all we can do is fight for it. I know I'm right here because I'm supposed to be. I know if I run part time, it's because I'm supposed to learn something through it, if I run full time, it's because I'm supposed to run for a championship," Bayne said.

Eddie Wood puts his team and racing, in general, in perspective as he continues the legacy of his father and uncle. (Getty Images)

"I just have to stay focused on what I do have, what my opportunity is, and ... be thankful I do have an owner like Jack Roush and the Wood Brothers who are willing to stand behind me through those tough times. For me to be out of the car for five weeks and the owners to say, 'Look, we're not even taking your name off the door' .... If you look at the car, Ricky Stenhouse's first Cup start, it's got a piece of tape over the name where I wrote his name, because they still had mine on there and I felt bad. That's support to me, and it shows a lot about them, and it shows a lot about their relationship, and how I plan on staying here for a long time."

'Don't get greedy'

To Eddie Wood, the victory in last season's Daytona 500 was bigger than one day. For a team that hadn't won anything in a decade, and hadn't won the Great American Race since doing it with David Pearson in 1976, that triumph last February offered a reminder of how great the Wood Brothers team once was. It not only brought back reminders of all those victories from the past, it gave them all new meaning. It reinforced what the Wood Brothers have always been and will always be.

So you will hear no grousing around Stewart, Va., or from any of the Woods, about being unable to fully capitalize on the Daytona 500. This is an organization that's been around long enough to have seen it all, that knows what tough times are really like, that understands everything in racing works in a cycle that nobody can really control. They're thankful for things like Motorcraft re-signing for another three years. Do they want to be full time again, racing that No. 21 every week? Of course. Are they jaded because even a victory in NASCAR's biggest race hasn't allowed them to do that? Absolutely not.

"Racing doesn't really have a big conscience. It just plays out, and you've got to take the good with the bad."


"Winning something of the magnitude of the Daytona 500 -- you just appreciate what happened, and that it did happen," Eddie Wood said. "You don't get greedy in racing, because it will turn around and bite you. You've got to take what it gives you, if it decides to give you something, and be happy you got it, because it can take so many things away from you quickly. As good as things can go, it can turn right around the next day and go just as bad. Racing doesn't really have a big conscience. It just plays out, and you've got to take the good with the bad."

That way of thinking has clearly rubbed off on their driver. Bayne has fewer races on his 2012 calendar than he did a season ago, but good luck finding any trace of dissatisfaction from a kid who exudes appreciation for what he does have. Of course, it certainly helps that he's back at Daytona with another good car, one that went to the wind tunnel several times before it was brought to Florida, and was ninth quickest in front-row qualifying in very blustery conditions Sunday. No, Trevor Bayne didn't parlay his Daytona 500 victory into full sponsorship and a full-time ride. But it afforded him perhaps something greater -- the knowledge that he can win it again.

"Now we can go back to Daytona saying, 'We know how to win,' " Bayne said. "Honestly, I don't see anything bad that can come out of a win unless you go running off and saying, 'Look at me, look at me, look what I did.' We didn't do that. We said it was going to be tough. I think we didn't let ourselves get those unrealistic expectations to where we could fall so far. I try not to let myself ride that roller coaster. Because if I let what we're doing be defined by strictly finishes, then there's no value in that. Because it doesn't show how hard my guys work. ... We're going to keep working at it, and I think the 500 win was a good thing all the way around."