How wild and crazy was young Trevor Bayne’s victory Sunday in the Daytona 500?
Many are rating it the biggest surprise triumph in NASCAR's history, which dates to 1949.
Bayne had turned 20 just one day before at Daytona International Speedway, home to NASCAR's biggest show. It was his first start in the race, and only his second anywhere in the Cup Series.
These facts alone make his victory a stunner.
It took some of stock car racing's superstars – savvy veterans – years to win the Daytona 500.
Dale Earnhardt finally got the checkered flag in the most-coveted of all NASCAR races in his 20th try, Buddy Baker in his 19th and Darrell Waltrip in his 17th.
Get the idea?
It’s not easy.
Sure, heavy attrition among some of the top stars figured into Bayne winning. But several drivers with good cars and far more experience were still on the track as the thrilling finish unfolded.
The youthful Tennessean with the infectious smile DID NOT back into what’s proving an immensely popular triumph.
In pondering the scope of Bayne’s accomplishment in a Ford fielded by the storied Wood Brothers team, I thought back to other shockers in major events on superspeedways.
Here are four that I most vividly recall:
World 600, 1960 – Joe Lee Johnson, a journeyman driver, Johnson, also a Tennessean, was among the longest of shots in the inaugural race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. This even though he was NASCAR’s Convertible Division champion in 1959.
Like Bayne, he benefited when many better-known competitors were sidelined by trouble, mainly due to the new track’s disintegrating asphalt.
Jack Smith held a seven-lap lead when a sharp piece of pavement punctured his gas tank, opening the way for Johnson to score the only big victory of his career.
So unexpected was the outcome that for days after the 600 many fans thought the winner was a Johnson named Junior, not Joe Lee.
The first 600 champion left the cockpit of race cars in the mid-1960s to operate Cleveland Speedway in his hometown near Chattanooga. He passed away in 2005 at age 75.
Southern 500, 1962 – Larry Frank, a rugged ex-Marine, figured nowhere in pre-race speculation at Darlington Raceway, no matter that he had qualified a respectable 10th at “The Track Too Tough To Tame.”
But he kept his Ford in contention throughout a wreck-strewn race on a scorching hot Labor Day. The checkered flag went to Junior Johnson, followed by Marvin Panch, David Pearson, Frank and Jim Paschal.
Protests about the scoring were filed almost immediately. At midnight NASCAR shuffled the order to list Frank as the winner, with Johnson, Panch, Pearson and Richard Petty completing the top five.
Frank, fuming about not getting to go to Victory Lane, actually had led the final 66 laps. It’s understandable that his bitterness lasted over the years. Frank never won again, retiring after 102 starts and eventually opening an auto body repair shop in Greenville, S.C.
He died in 2010 at age 80.
Talladega 500, 1973 – Dick Brooks went to the track then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway without a ride. Three days before the race, car owner Jimmy Crawford put Brooks behind the wheel of his year-old Plymouth rather than drive it himself.
NASCAR officials decreed that Crawford didn’t have sufficient superspeedway experience to get on the ultrafast 2.66-mile track.
Buddy Baker appeared a sure winner, racing to a lead of more than a lap. Then, an oil seal failed on Baker’s Dodge, giving Brooks the lead with 19 laps to go.
Baker charged back onto the track in pursuit of Brooks, but couldn’t overtake the jocular Californian, who won by 7.9 seconds. Brooks never triumphed again, but he parlayed his lone win into auto dealerships, hotels and a sprawling cattle ranch near Spartanburg, S.C.
Brooks passed away in 2006 at 63, never fully recovering from a motorcycle accident a few years earlier.
Firecracker 400, 1985 – No less an authority than widely respected historian Greg Fielden rates Greg Sacks’ victory one of the biggest upsets ever.
Sacks went to Daytona International Speedway to drive a “research/development” Chevrolet fielded by DiGard Racing. The Long Islander ran in the front pack throughout, taking the lead on the 152nd of 160 laps when Bill Elliott had to pit his powerful Ford an extra time for fuel.
Sacks won by a whopping 23.5 seconds over runner-up Elliott. Servicing the car for Sacks was a pick-up pit crew. Included was the jackman, an Ivy League fullback who’d never worked in a race before.
Further, one of the lead mechanics on the machine engineered by Gary Nelson was an Australian who slept in a relatively small shop near Charlotte where the car was maintained. Speculation began immediately that the imaginative Nelson had sneaked a big engine past NASCAR.
However, the car had passed inspection and Sacks’ became an official Cup Series winner for the only time. Sacks, now 57, still attempts to qualify for major events from time to time.
Meanwhile, and not surprisingly, the clean-cut Trevor Bayne’s triumph at Daytona is having a wide-ranging, positive effect.
Baker said Wednesday that about two dozen fans “from age 12 to 20” phoned his Sirius radio show Tuesday night to talk about Bayne.
“Young people are really excited,” said Buddy. “Trevor has given NASCAR a jolt.”
And various sources say that since Monday the demand for Bayne souvenirs is “off the charts.”