By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
It doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago, when a fresh faced youngster named Trevor Bayne rose to occasion on NASCAR’s largest stage. Bayne won the Daytona 500, in just his second-ever start in the premier racing series in the United States. The future looked bright, until it didn’t.
That lone breakthrough moment was more than a half-decade ago. Bayne, once the sport’s darling at 20 years old, is now a 25-year old veteran.
In between that day in February of 2011 and the end of last season, Bayne had not had much really happen to write home about. In all, Bayne racked up just four top-10 finishes in 92 starts during that span, and he led only 23 laps. In the words of Bayne on that fateful day in Daytona, “Are you kidding me?”
After an absolutely abysmal 2015 season, where Bayne was driving for Roush Fenway Racing — an organization that had fallen off the map from a competition standpoint — it appeared his once bright career was just moments away from fading away completely. But then came a refreshing start to this season.
Roush Fenway Racing seemingly began to close the gap on the competition in the offseason, and as a result Bayne has started to become more and more of a fixture inside the top-half of the field. Bayne raised eyebrows with a third-place qualifying effort in the second race of the year, at Atlanta.
A couple of months later, Bayne looked like he had a shot to steal a win with a wonky pit strategy. However an ill-timed caution mired Bayne deep in the field after leading 12 laps. Bayne kept the momentum rolling by finishing an impressive fifth at Bristol a week later. His hot streak hasn’t cooled much since it began in April.
Through the first 12 races of this year, Bayne has already matched — or surpassed — career highs in just about every statistical category. He has one top-five finish, three top-10s and he has led 34 laps. A lot of Bayne’s success is due in part to his incredible qualifying efforts so far this year, his average start in a career-high 16.8, while his average finish is also a career-best at 18.2.
The real measure of how far the No. 6 team has come since last season, was shown this past week in Dover. Bayne started from the 25th position, and he didn’t have a great car all week. However, Bayne and his crew chief Matt Puccia didn’t panic. They kept their heads down and fought all day long. Bayne skillfully missed an 18-car pileup with 45 laps to go. A short time after, Bayne crossed the finish line with a solid 10th place run.
“Sometimes we haven’t felt like this season we got the finished we deserved and today we didn’t get a finish we deserved but we will take it,” Bayne said after the race. “The shoe was on the right foot today. It is nice to get a finish like that after not having a great weekend.
“We were really tight all day. That last run we were pretty fast at the end of it. We will learn from it, come back next time and count our blessings here and take a top-10 happily. I was on the edge of my seat out there for sure. It is a really grueling race track. You can’t let your guard down for a second or it will bite you. We saw that in practice and saw that in the race. I am just glad to get out of here without any wounds.”
In two starts at the Monster Mile last year, Bayne had a best finish of 31st. If that doesn’t show signs of improvement, I don’t know what does.
If Bayne, Puccia, and Roush Fenway Racing keep taking strides forward, we may see a more mature Bayne reaching victory lane in the not-too-distant future. For now, it’s just great watching one of the best feel-good stories develop in recent NASCAR history.
Image: Chris Trotman/Getty Images