The start of the 53rd running of the Daytona 500 was moments away, and 20-year-old Trevor Bayne was leaning against his number 21 Ford. Unlike nearly every other driver on the starting grid, Bayne had no swarm of photographers, cameramen or fans buzzing around him, and he took a moment to soak in the scene, amazed at how far he'd come in such a short time. Then his father, Rocky, who bought his son his first go-kart when Trevor was five, leaned in close. "I love you," he said. "Just race like you have since you were a boy and you'll do fine. Go get 'em."
And so Bayne did. In what must be considered the greatest upset in the history of the Great American Race, Bayne, who celebrated his birthday the day before the race by riding a golf cart through the Daytona infield and watching his friends take the checkered flag in a wheelbarrow race, held off a hard-charging Carl Edwards to become the youngest driver to win NASCAR's most prestigious event. How improbable was this victory? His team, Wood Brothers Racing, competed in only 13 Sprint Cup events last season and didn't have a single top 10 finish. Bayne, whose bio isn't even in the NASCAR Sprint Cup media guide, had made just one career start on the Cup circuit—finishing 17th at Texas Motor Speedway last November—and he was so confident that he wouldn't be going on the jet-setting champion's tour the day after the 500 that he drove his own car to Daytona from his home in Mooresville, N.C. "Winning never really entered my mind," Bayne said late on Sunday evening. "But we just hung around, and then all of a sudden I'm leading the race on the last lap. It was a game of survival out there."
Winning the 500 has always required the skill—and luck—to avoid the multicar accidents that frequently erupt on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, but this year's race was the most treacherous in recent memory. Twelve wrecks contributed to a record 16 caution flags. On the week that marked the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona, no driver was injured. But many looked shaken afterward by the level of danger that existed on the track. A new surface, combined with a new style of two-car drafting (as opposed to the traditional style that saw the cars running in large packs), made the drivers feel like a ticking time bomb was riding shotgun with them.
"That was 520 miles of sheer terror out there," said Edwards, noting that the race was extended eight laps because of crash-induced cautions. "If that were a lesser group of drivers out there, this would have been really, really bad. The circumstances we were all put in made it very, very easy to wreck."
It was an embarrassment, the equivalent of the ice melting during a gold medal Olympic hockey match. Just past midway in last year's 500 a two-inch-deep, nine-by-15-inch hole developed in the track off Turn 2. The pothole delayed NASCAR's most watched event of the season for more than two hours—"An absolute joke," was how Greg Biffle described it—and two months later track officials announced that Daytona would be repaved for the first time since 1978. Starting the day after the Coke Zero 400 last July, teams of up to 100 workers spent five months tearing up the cracked, bumpy surface and laying down 50,000 tons of new asphalt. The $20 million project was a smashing success; the high-banked 2.5-mile tri-oval is now the smoothest track on the Sprint Cup circuit. After Tony Stewart took a few practice laps around the new and improved Daytona, he noted, "You literally could hold a full cup of coffee with the lid off and not spill a drop riding around [the track]."
Yet only one driver fully grasped how the repaving could fundamentally change the nature of racing at Daytona: Kurt Busch. To understand how Busch ushered in a new era at NASCAR's most storied track, you need to go back to a 2007 test session at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, a 2.66-mile tri-oval that like Daytona is a restrictor-plate track. (At these two tracks NASCAR installs restrictor plates on the carburetors to reduce airflow to the engines, which in turn lowers horsepower and keeps speeds from getting out of hand.) Talladega had recently been repaved, and Busch came up with an idea: Let's see how fast I can go around the track when my teammate is pushing me. Busch was blown away by the result. With Ryan Newman's Dodge pushing Busch's from behind at nearly 200 mph, their cars' aerodynamics so improved that the two were more than two seconds faster per lap than when they were running alone.
"That opened our eyes," Busch says. "But we couldn't do it all the way around the track, because we were afraid that we were going to crash through the corners. But we were so fast on the straightaways that we decided that we were going to give it a try in the Daytona 500 the next year."
Five months later Newman and Busch hooked up in a two-car draft over the last three laps of the 2008 Daytona 500. Though they separated in the turns—"It was way too bumpy, and we would have wrecked," Busch says—the teammates shot up through the field over the final 7.5 miles as Busch pushed Newman to Victory Lane.
The memory of that experience rushed back at Busch when he arrived at Daytona in December for another test session. Standing in his hauler before heading out onto the repaved track for the first time, Busch told his teammate Brad Keselowski that they should practice the two-car drafting method. Once on the track Busch quickly realized that because the corners were so smooth, the two cars could stay attached all the way around the superspeedway. What's more, they could stay on the throttle for the entire lap, never braking, something drivers couldn't do on the old Daytona track because there wasn't enough "grip" through the corners.
Right away Busch and Keselowski were going almost 15 mph faster than drivers on the track making single car runs. By the end of the test session, nearly every team was following the model of Busch and Keselowski. Not surprisingly Busch, the pioneer of this new kind of racing, dominated Speedweeks. On Feb. 12 he won the Budweiser Shootout, an exhibition race, and five days later he took the checkered flag in his 150-mile qualifying race. On Sunday he led 19 laps before fading late and finishing fifth.