The week after his Daytona 500 victory, Trevor Bayne surged to No. 1 in licensed merchandise sales at this Web site's online store. His gear sold at a rate nearly three times that of any other driver save Dale Earnhardt Jr., and double that of last year's Daytona 500 champion, Jamie McMurray. A whole new line of products, from caps to T-shirts to die-cast cars, was rolled out. A celebratory homecoming in Knoxville, Tenn., was planned, and hundreds of people braved flooding and stormy weather to see the 20-year-old NASCAR sensation honored by dignitaries in his hometown.
And then came Jeff Gordon, topping it all.
The early stages of this NASCAR season have evolved into a large-scale motorized game of one-upmanship. Make no mistake, Bayne's victory at Daytona was huge, particularly for a sport that's struggled to gain traction among younger viewers. It catapulted a humble new star into the spotlight, goosed television ratings, and tossed in the added bonus of returning an established race team to Victory Lane for the first time in a decade, giving both young and old something to cheer. Some competitors went home with wrecked race cars, others may have second-guessed moves they made at the end, but when viewed in its totality Daytona was one of those rare days when no one really lost.
This past weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, though, was another matter. It didn't feature the glitz or the national attention of a Daytona 500, it didn't have the shine and the newness of a Trevor Bayne. But Gordon prevailing for the first time in almost two years, since a victory at Texas in April of 2009, was as big a shot in the arm for NASCAR as anything else that's happened so far this year. Because the sport is simply more interesting, more compelling and, yes, more enjoyable when its biggest stars win. A NASCAR renaissance -- if that's indeed what we're witnessing -- can be jump-started by someone like Bayne, but it will take the likes of Gordon to give it long-term viability.
What Bayne did at Daytona, in only his second career start on NASCAR's premier division, was astonishing. That he did it with the revered Wood Brothers added only another layer to an already irresistible story. Young women swooned and old men wept, for different reasons both stemming from the same achievement. But Trevormania cannot sustain NASCAR by itself. Bayne was bound to come back down to earth eventually, and he did, crashing in practice at Phoenix last Friday and again during the race. As an up-and-coming driver, he's the total package, but one who's also running a partial schedule and won't be a factor in the championship. People will remember Bayne's Daytona triumph forever. But barring a spate of further unseen accomplishments, it won't help drive ratings and attendance in the thick of the Chase.
A driver like Gordon, though, is capable of doing just that. His victory before a sellout crowd at Phoenix reminded everyone of so many things that his 66-race winless skid obscured, from his level of raw popularity to his penchant for showing emotion in front of the camera. Suddenly, we're reintroduced to the guy who let three or four potential victories last year slip from his grasp -- most notably at Las Vegas, where the circuit is headed next -- who was the class of the 2007 Cup field until the Chase, who can drive walk-up ticket sales with the best of them. This past Sunday afternoon welcomed back a Jeff Gordon who knows how to move people out of the way to get to the front (think Rusty Wallace felt for Kyle Busch at all?) and for whom winning is less a surprise than an expectation.
"Going to the race track and being competitive and battling for wins, that's been my whole motivation throughout my career. I've been so fortunate to be in that position to go to the race track with a shot at winning races on a pretty consistent basis, and that's what I love about racing," Gordon said afterward.
"I don't love going out there and finishing 10th or 15th or 20th. I'll be honest, it's depressing and I know that might not come across the right way but when you've won 82 races, and you've worked for Hendrick Motorsports, that pressure is there and there's expectations not only from the outside but the inside. When you go on that kind of a streak and drought, no doubt about it, it's frustrating. And it has not been a lot of fun going to the race track. And ... what made it so sweet, this victory, is, it's not like we lucked into it. We battled and we worked and we out raced them and it was just so cool to experience that. It's got me excited about the rest of the season as well. I think we can do this at other tracks as well."
Really, the first two weeks of this season have presented NASCAR with a perfect 1-2 punch, an ideal combination of youth and experience that together have generated a buzz unlike anything the series has seen in years. There are other little pieces to this puzzle as well, like a No. 43 car that hasn't been this high in the standings after two weeks since Richard Petty drove it, and a top-10 at Phoenix that was awash in heavyweight contenders for the championship. The lull that often immediately follows the Daytona 500 has been noticeably absent, and now it's on to two speedways -- Las Vegas and Bristol -- with a solid track record of selling tickets. It's only the beginning of a long season and a lot can happen, but the folks in Daytona Beach probably haven't felt this positive in a long time.
Now -- what comes next? What can top what topped Daytona? Las Vegas is another one of those tracks where Jimmie Johnson has shown the ability to run off and hide from everyone else, just as he did last year in winning by nearly two seconds over Kevin Harvick. And yet, the past four Sprint Cup races have seen two very long winless streaks come to an end, with Carl Edwards' 70-event skid last November at Phoenix preceding Gordon's drought-buster at the same facility Sunday. Now, clearly it's too soon to declare that a trend. But surely the legions with green 88s tattooed into their biceps are hoping that it is.
Hey, it's far from outlandish to think that Earnhardt Jr.'s 95-race winless streak, stretching all the way back to that 2008 event at Michigan when he coasted home on fumes, could end Sunday. The opening two weeks of this season have been promising, with his strong run at Daytona -- which was ruined by a cut tire -- followed by a 10th-place effort at Phoenix. He's twice finished second at Las Vegas, but the book makers there still consider him a long shot. The Las Vegas Hilton lists his odds of winning at 40-to-1, well down a list headed by favorite Johnson.
And yet, stranger things have happened, this season already. Who could have foreseen Bayne at Daytona, or even Gordon at Phoenix? And should the unthinkable become reality once again in this 2011 campaign, what could possibly top the spectacle of Earnhardt pulling into Victory Lane at Las Vegas, surrounded by plumed showgirls, Carrot Top, Blue Man Group and Bruton Smith? Perhaps only the No. 21 car doing the same thing the next week at Bristol -- only this time with David Pearson inside.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.