Back in February of 2011, Trevor Bayne went into Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway a decided underdog. He was just 19 years old when he arrived at Daytona to begin preparing for the Daytona 500, although he turned 20 on the day before the 500.
He had raced a Cup car just one before, at Texas Motor Speedway in the fall of 2010. Although he put on an impressive performance in his Cup debut, there still were doubts about how he’d perform in NASCAR’s biggest race.
The No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford that he would drive was another story. Even in the team’s lean years, the Woods have had fast cars at Daytona and its sister track, Talladega Superspeedway. For the 2011 race, then-crew chief Donnie Wingo and his Ford teammates at Roush Fenway Racing had worked hard all winter, as all top teams do, to prepare a car that had all the aerodynamic tweaks the rules allow.
When Bayne hit the track for practice he soon was posting speeds as fast as far more experienced drivers. He qualified third-fastest behind Daytona veterans Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
But it wasn’t until the first race practice after qualifying that Bayne began to show signs that he might be a contender for the win in spite of his inexperience.
The 2011 Daytona 500 saw drivers pairing up, with one pushing the other and making both cars run much faster that either one alone. The phenomenon was known as “tandem drafting.”
Eddie Wood, co-owner of the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford, remembers how taken aback he was at the speeds two cars in tandem could achieve.
“I saw Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon hook up and run 207 miles per hour,” Wood said. “I called my dad, who was staying in a condo over on the beach, and told him he needed to come see it.”
It turns out that Glen Wood had seen it before.
“He said he’d seen Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly do it in a couple of Ford Falcons at Daytona in 1961,” Wood said. “I went over to the NASCAR Archives that afternoon and found a picture of Turner and Weatherly running bumper to bumper.”
Among those who were excelling at tandem drafting was the youngster Bayne.
“Trevor took to it like a natural,” Wood recalled.
“Having no previous experience in a Cup car at Daytona might have been an advantage because he hadn’t learned to race in the draft any other way. He didn’t have any habit to unlearn.”
Bayne’s biggest problem was in the numbers.
Being from a single-car team, he didn’t have any natural drafting partners as did the drivers from multi-car teams. But having a fast car allowed him to build some drafting friendships.
In the last practice before Thursday’s qualifying races, Kyle Busch agreed to draft with Bayne.
Then, right before the start of the 150-mile qualifier, Jeff Gordon told Bayne he’d draft with him in the qualifier.
“They couldn’t get going good just after restarts, but after a few laps they could go from the back of the pack to the front,” Wood said of the Bayne/Gordon combo. “But it was all with Trevor doing the pushing. He was never the front guy.”
But on the last lap of the qualifier, Bayne was swept up in a multi-car melee and the No. 21 Ford was damaged on the nose and on both sides.
Despite finishing 19th in the qualifier, Bayne made the starting field for the 500 based on his qualifying time.
As Eddie and Len Wood were returning to the garage to help decide whether to fix their primary car or roll out the back-up, they came upon Doug Yates, their engine builder.
Yates answered the question by asking a question of his own: “What would Leonard Wood or Robert Yates do?”
And with that the decision was made to repair the damaged primary car.
Wingo, the Motorcraft/Quick Lane crew and a contingent from Roush Fenway Racing set about repairing the car. The team worked through the day on Friday and didn’t get back on the track until the final practice session on Saturday.
Bayne ran a handful of laps and reported that the car was as fast as it was before.
“That was good to hear, because it meant we’d made the right decision in fixing the car instead of going to a backup,” Wood said.
In the 500, Bayne ran near the front all day. He drafted some with Robby Gordon and Jeff Gordon, then hooked up with Ford teammate David Ragan.
“Back then drivers could talk on the radio to other drivers, so a lot of that time, they were on David’s channel and using his spotter,” Wood said. “It worked fine because Trevor was always pushing.”
A late-race wreck with two of 200 scheduled laps left to run set up a dramatic run to the checkered flag.
On first attempt at a green-white-checkered-flag finish, one that could have been the final one of the race, Ragan and Bayne started on the front row, with Ragan the leader of the race in the outside lane.
After the green flag was displayed but before the leaders reached the start finish line, Ragan shifted lanes to hook up with Bayne. That’s a rules violation, so Ragan was penalized and Bayne assumed the lead for the next restart, which followed a crash on the backstretch.
“Since he hadn’t been in the top spot all day for a restart, Trevor asked Donnie what to do,” Wood said. “Donnie told him to go as hard as he could.”
When the green flag dropped for the second attempt at a green-white-checkered-flag finish, Bayne had a strong restart, with some dedicated pushing help from Bobby Labonte.
“Bobby got them both out into the lead,” Wood said.
Carl Edwards and David Gilliland were hooked up and coming in a hurry, but when they got to Bayne and Labonte, Edwards bypassed Labonte and fell in behind Bayne and wound up pushing him across the finish line. Bayne led just six laps all day, but they were the final six, from Lap 203 to 208.
The victory, the Woods’ fifth in the Daytona 500 and the 600th Cup win for Ford, was timely for the family-owned team, which had cut back to a partial schedule and was focusing on the restrictor-plate and intermediate tracks.
“Along about that time, the economy was down and it was hard to get enough sponsorship to run competitively for the full season,” Wood said. “We hadn’t won a race in a long time, so it was good to be able to show that we could still do it.”
The winning No. 21 Fusion never raced again. It spent a year on display at Daytona, covered with the spray from sugary soft drinks and brightly colored confetti.
Now it’s on display in the Henry Ford Museum, still just as it rolled out of Victory Lane at Daytona other than being signed by the Wood Brothers team and by the Ford Motor Company officials involved in the NASCAR racing effort.
“Every time I go to the Henry Ford, I climb over the ropes and check the car,” Wood said. “There was a plastic water bottle jammed under the seat during the race, and it’s still there.”