When the Wood Brothers No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion hits the track for Daytona 500 practice on Saturday, it’ll represent both ends of the Speedweeks experience spectrum.
The Woods have been racing at Daytona in February for 61 years, since team founder Glen Wood was driving in races on the old beach-road course that preceded Daytona International Speedway.
Their current driver, rookie Trevor Bayne, has never driven a Sprint Cup car at Daytona except in two off-season test sessions.
But Bayne, who will turn 20 next Saturday, is no ordinary rookie, and therefore expectations are high for his first try at the Great American Race.
As he participated in Thursday’s Media Day rounds with reporters, Bayne came across as poised and confident, with no sign of any pre-race jitters.
“When you set your expectations and you finally get there, it doesn’t come as a surprise,” he said. “Since I was five years old I wanted to be here at this point, so now that we’re here, this is where I wanted to be.
“We belong here and I think we’re going to try to make that statement that we’re not just here to run a race, we’re here to stay….
“I think we’ve got the opportunity to do it. I’ve got all the support around me with Ford Racing and Wood Brothers and Roush on the Nationwide side, and getting double seat time this weekend. I’m really looking forward to that because I like to stay busy all the time.”
Over the years, some of NASCAR’s best drivers have come to Daytona for the first time and driven like they’d been running there for years. The late Dale Earnhardt led 10 laps and finished eighth in his first Daytona 500, back in 1979, and Jeff Gordon won his Gatorade Duel and finished fifth in the 500 his first time out, in 1993. Bayne said coming out the box in a big way is the approach he needs to take.
“I think as a race car driver that’s the mentality you have to have,” he said. “Sometimes it gets me in trouble, because I’m so worried about performance and being the fastest in practice and qualifying on the pole that you set unreal expectations and that sets you up for disappointment.
“But I think as long as we set those real expectations, kind of like we did at Texas, and you meet those expectations, you’re just going to get better and better.”
Like Earnhardt and Gordon in their Daytona debuts, Bayne has strong support behind him. In addition to the support and experience from the Woods, he’s got a veteran crew chief in Donnie Wingo and technical support from Roush Fenway Racing.
“The Wood Brothers, they’ve poured their heart and soul into this,” Bayne said. “You can see a lot of excitement going on, and they said they haven’t felt this excited going to Daytona in a long time.
“So to hear that gives me a little boost to see the confidence they already have in me after one race.”
Team co-owner Eddie Wood said he has confidence in both his car and his driver.
“We’ve tested here two times, and we’ve worked on our car after each one, so we’re looking forward to getting on the track and seeing what we’ve got,” he said.
Wood also pointed out that even though the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Fusion will sport a rookie’s yellow stripe on the rear bumper, Bayne is much more than a novice racer.
“He’s been racing since he was five years old, so by the time he takes the green flag for the 500 he’ll have 16 years of experience,” Wood said. “And he probably got 500 miles of drafting practice during the Goodyear tire test in December.”
Qualifying for the Daytona 500 is set for Sunday at 1:05 p.m. The 150-mile Gatorade Duel qualifying races are scheduled for Thursday at 2 p.m., and the green flag for the Daytona 500 is scheduled to fly just after 1 p.m. on Sunday Feb. 20, with TV coverage on FOX.